Clinical commissioning groups in Kent have agreed to plough an extra £1.6m into their contract with a private ambulance provider as part of a “last chance” deal to improve its performance.

The deal was revealed during a meeting of Kent County Council’s health overview and scrutiny committee, which this month quizzed repesentatives from both the CCGs and the private provider, NSL Kent.

Ian Ayres, chief officer for West Kent Clinical Commissioning Group, which manages the contract on behalf of eight CCGs in Kent and Medway has said they are committed to getting the service back on track and that NSL is “in no way to blame”.

Mr Ayres told the committee the contract had now been “re-set” to ensure payments reflected “the activity that we’re seeing”.

He added: “I think we’ve moved from a position where in January I was nervous that the service was in danger of collapsing around our heads to a position where it’s stable and the provider has a good chance and is working hard to put things right.”  

Councillors questioned why the service appeared not to have improved significantly since a lack of quality checks and high numbers of patient complaints were discovered by the Care Quality Commission in November.

Mr Ayres replied: “There will be no further recovery plans beyond the one that takes us to June.

“If we haven’t turned the service around we will need to sit down and think very seriously about what’s next. It’s a last chance.”

Mr Ayres said the provider’s performance had improved slightly but had not yet “turned it [the service] around”

He told councillors: “If I’m honest about it, we are still at this stage holding our breath. I believe the provider is capable of turning it around but they haven’t done so as yet.”

Mr Ayres was also pressed over the procurement of the contract. “I find myself deeply unhappy with the performance of this contract,” he said in response. “We’re not where we should be, I don’t like where we’re at and we should have never got to this point.”

He told HSJ later in a statement: “We are committed to working with NSL [the parent company] to achieve the improvements we all want. The information which was available to commissioners drawing up the invitation to tender was incomplete, and therefore so was the specification.”

A spokeswoman for NSL Limited said “good progress” had been made since the CQC inspection in November and that all the issues highlighted had been “immediately prioritised”.

She added: “We are pleased to say that from where we were last year, and through working closely with commissioners, good progress has been made…As well as management changes, we have also recruited an additional 70 employees, and invested in extra vehicles.”