• Arrangement forms part of winter plan for county with struggling hospital trust
  • Service to start for Alexandra Hospital patients early next month
  • Regional leaders warn plan will not be enough to free up acute beds

A local fire service has stepped in to help a struggling hospital trust ferry patients home as part of its winter plans.

Worcestershire Acute Hospitals Trust’s board were told on Friday about plans for an “enhanced hospital from home” service, which would use Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service.

Under the plan, the fire service would “support safe early discharge of patients who may need additional help to settle them back home” but did not require any in-home care.

The fire service would “expedite safe discharges” seven days a week with a focus on patients being discharged before noon, the plan said.

The fire service has already agreed to provide the service for six months free of charge. This “will enable us to identify the exact requirements of such a service in the future”, the document said.

The proposal was included in Worcestershire accident and emergency delivery board’s winter plan, devised by provider and commissioner leaders in the county.

Responding to questions from HSJ, a fire service spokeswoman confirmed the service would be offered to patients at Alexandra Hospital in Redditch from early next month.

She said: “The service will be aimed at the most vulnerable to ensure they are safe in their own homes. Patients who can walk and possibly some wheelchair users will all benefit from transport home by uniformed fire service staff who are fully trained in identifying risks in the home and any required additional agency support.”

It would be carried out by the service’s “community risk” team, which were already trained and carrying out wellness and safety home checks for vulnerable people in the county, she said. 

The spokeswoman added: “HWFRS recognises that the NHS is under extreme pressure through the winter months. The idea was proposed by the HWFRS community risk team which constantly seeks ways to assist the most vulnerable in our communities.”

The team would use “regular” vehicles in the service’s fleet which are routinely used by the community team, she said.

A trust spokesman said: “This offer of additional support from our local fire service could help to improve our discharge processes and help our efforts to ensure patients who are medically fit for discharge get home safely, freeing up beds, improving patient flow, reducing waits in our emergency department and improving ambulance handover times.

“It is just one part of a much wider system plan, and a number of details have still to be agreed but it reflects our commitment to exploring every possible opportunity for keeping services running safely and effectively through winter.”

Worcestershire Acute has a history of governance, performance and financial difficulties. NHS Improvement has placed the trust in quality special measures and the Care Quality Commission has repeatedly rated it “inadequate”.

Last winter, Worcestershire Royal Hospital made national headlines when ambulances queued for hours to transfer patients to the emergency department. The delays were described as a “catastrophe” by the West Midland Ambulance Service.

The winter before, then health secretary Jeremy Hunt singled out the trust as the one Department of Health officials were “most worried about”.

In addition to recruiting the fire service, the Worcestershire winter plan includes expansion of medical bed capacity at both Worcestershire Royal and Alexandra hospitals and better front-door triage.

This includes more GP streaming at Worcestershire Royal, where occupancy regularly exceeds 100 per cent in winter, and a new urgent treatment centre at Alexandra Hospital.

There would also be a “phased” reduction in elective capacity from 21 December until the end of March, the plan said.

However, despite these measures, a trust paper discussing the winter plan noted that “chief operating officers who meet weekly remain concerned that the current plan will not reduce the bed occupancy on the WRH site sufficiently”.