• London Fire Brigade finalising deal with union 
  • Move comes as 900 ambulance staff off work due to covid-19 
  • Shortage of PPE also still causing concerns

Firefighters are set to drive ambulances from as early as next week as London Ambulance Service Trust struggles to cope with close to a thousand staff off work due to covid-19, HSJ can reveal.

London Fire Brigade staff are ready to step in as soon as an agreement can be reached with the Fire Brigades Union and firefighters have undergone a brief familiarisation with vehicles and basic medical training. Firefighters will be asked to volunteer for the role and it is not yet clear what numbers will be involved.

David Shek, the FBU’s executive member for London, said he was looking at the proposed agreement this morning and thinks “we will get somewhere with it”. The fire brigade has around 400 staff self-isolating, but was currently able to help, he said.  

One ambulance union officer warned ambulance staff were struggling to respond to an extra 4,000 999 calls a day. Unison branch secretary Eddie Brand said crews had call outs queueing all day on Wednesday and were under tremendous stress. “I don’t know how much longer they [staff] are going to be able to take it,” he said.

Multiple sources have told HSJ the number of staff off sick or self-isolating has rocketed in the last week as cases in the capital surge. Around 600 staff were off work last week but this has increased to around 900 this week.

The trust’s annual report for 2018-19 said it employed more than 5,800 people, of whom 2,148 were paramedics and 1,405 were emergency ambulance crew members or medical technicians. This puts the level of staff off work at 16 per cent. It is not known how many of the 900 staff were paramedics or other ambulance crew.

The capital is thought to be two to three weeks ahead of the rest of the country in the impact of covid-19. Earlier this week, HSJ reported NHS England’s national director for mental health, Claire Murdoch, said London was four days away from running out of intensive care beds.

In an interview with BBC Radio London, LAS chief executive Garrett Emmerson highlighted the pressure the service is under with 9,000 999 calls a day, compared with a normal busy day of 5,000.

Responding to potential covid-19 patients also took more time than other calls, said Mr Brand, because crews had to don protective equipment and spend more time cleaning the vehicle afterwards.

Ambulance service staff have repeatedly complained about shortages of personal protective equipment. A delivery in the last few days has eased the situation but Mr Brand said what had arrived was not what had been ordered and did not contain masks.

“All the ambulance stations are different, some are saying they have good supplies for the next two to three days, others are saying they don’t have much,” he said. “Something needs to be done urgently. We are telling people if they don’t have the right equipment then they should withdraw from a job and another crew will need to be sent.”

Unions have also raised concerns and asked for the evidence to support Public Health England guidance which says PPE is not needed with a covid-19 patient unless an aerosolising generating procedure is needed.

In a letter to the LAS’s chief operating officer, Mr Brand said: “We remain concerned over the stock level of our PPE provisions in the LAS and the repeated persistent shortages.”

He added that testing of staff was “essential to the continued resilience of our service” but emphaised he did not blame the leadership of the trust for the PPE problems.

LAS referred all press enquiries to NHS England which had not responded at the time of publication.