• Private ambulance provider goes into administration
  • Several trusts affected including South East Coast Ambulance Service FT and East of England Ambulance Service Trust
  • New ambulance response targets led to demand for private 999 capacity “falling off a cliff”, says expert

One of England’s largest providers of 999 support to the NHS has gone into administration, affecting several NHS trusts, HSJ has learned.

SSG UK Specialist Ambulance Service Ltd was put in administration last week. The company mainly provides emergency and non-emergency transport services for the NHS.

HSJ understands the news has forced South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust to approach other private ambulance companies to make sure it has capacity to respond to patients if SSG’s services are disrupted.

A SECAmb spokesman said the trust was confident its mitigation plans would ensure a “safe continuation of services to patients”. He said private providers carried out up to 15 per cent of the trust’s 999 response activity, but could not break down what proportion of this was SSG. 

Only a small number of private ambulance companies offer 999 support to the NHS, as most companies focus their activity on non-emergency patient transport.

Individual ambulance trusts and clinical commissioning groups buy 999 support from the private sector to help with capacity issues. The arrangements mean trusts can use the private provider’s allocated fleet when directing paramedics to respond to 999 calls.

According to its 2017 annual accounts – the most recent available – SSG UK, which is based in Rainham, Essex, made a net loss of nearly £250,000 and its liabilities exceeded its assets by £68,000. Its turnover was £6.8m.

As well as SECAmb, the company provides services to ambulance trusts South Central Ambulance Service FT, East of England Ambulance Service Trust, North East Ambulance Service FT and London Ambulance Service Trust. It also provides non-emergency transport services for several NHS trusts.

An East of England Ambulance Service Trust spokeswoman said SSG provided 2 per cent of frontline services to the trust, but said the news presented “short-term challenges to capacity”. 

A South Central Ambulance Service FT spokesman said SSG “only provides a small part of our emergency 999 service and we have taken swift action to ensure that any potential disruption to the service we provide to patients is kept to a minimum.

“We will follow our business continuity arrangements to ensure SCAS is able to provide the additional ambulances and crews required until such a time as a new arrangement has been identified.”

A North East Ambulance Service FT spokesman said the company only provided three vehicles to the trust, and that “arrangements are in place to ensure there is no disruption for patients” while London Ambulance Service said it only used one SSG vehicle and will cover the loss itself.

In February this year, SSG’s corporate HQ was rated “inadequate” by the Care Quality Commission.

Inspectors reported medicines not being safely managed, no assurance that staff had completed safeguarding training, no evidence of learning from incidents, allegations of bullying, and a “disconnect” between senior leaders and frontline staff.

Alan Howson, executive chairman of the Independent Ambulance Association, told HSJ the cost of achieving regulatory compliance may have been a factor in the company’s financial problems.

He also said the new ambulance response targets, introduced in 2017, had lowered NHS demand for privately provided emergency services. 

“The immediate short term impact of that was they [ambulance trusts] could meet their response times,” Mr Howson said. 

“Therefore the demand for 999 support from the private sector fell off the cliff. One of our member companies was asked to put on 30 vehicles a day for the month, but when the new response targets came out that request was downgraded from 30 a day to 30 a month.” 

He said the number of people calling 999 had continued to increase since the targets were put in place.

HSJ has approached SSG UK for comment.