The new boss of London Ambulance Service has promised patients will not suffer under plans to close ambulance stations to bring it out of the “horse and cart” era.
LAS chief executive Daniel Elkeles vowed not to make “any changes which impact on the quality of care” in a bid to reassure MPs who feared that lives could be put at risk.
Concerns were sparked over the weekend by proposals to close four stations in east London - at Romford, Ilford, Becontree and Hornchurch – and replace them with a new “hub”, or ambulance deployment centre, in Dagenham – the first of 18 proposed across the capital.
Labour MP Margaret Hodge said the plans – which were thought to involve all of the LAS’s 68 stations - were “unjustifiable” and would lead to patients waiting longer for an ambulance.
Fellow Labour MP Diane Abbott said the proposals failed to recognise traffic congestion and population density and tweeted: “Lives will be put at risk.”
The Standard understands the original vision to shut all 68 stations and lease new buildings on industrial estates is unlikely to proceed without major amendments.
Senior figures remain keen to retain and modernise the biggest stations. But other stations are said to date to “Victorian times of horse-drawn ambulances in 1880s” and are not considered to be fit for purpose.
Due to the volume of calls, ambulance crews do not operate like the fire brigade and return to their station between emergencies. Rather, they go from one call to the next, and are typically dispatched to a new call within minutes of “going green” after treating a patient. Stations are used primarily for staff handovers at the start and end of shifts and for staff to take meal breaks.
In Havering, only one in four incidents in 2019 were attended by a crew driving direct from an ambulance station.
Ambulance chiefs reduced the number of stations in use during the pandemic to 33 to make it easier to distribute PPE equipment to front-line crews.
Thirteen stations have since reopened and last week the LAS board was told that seven more would reopen by the end of the year in response to staff concerns about being “crammed” into stations with nowhere to park their cars securely while on shift.
LAS chiefs are battling to cope with an unprecedented number of 999 and 111 calls, with demand this summer said to have been at winter levels. The service is trying to recruit more staff, necessitating the need to reopen stations.
Last month LAS met its seven-minute target for reaching the most serious calls in time, but took an average of 39 minutes to reach “category two” calls that should receive a response within 18 minutes.
Crews took an average of four hours 13 minutes to reach “category three” calls, which have a two-hour response target. “Category four” calls, which have a three-hour target, were taking more than seven-and-a-half hours to reach.
A LAS spokesperson said: “London Ambulance Service currently has the largest number of stations in the UK and the oldest estate, and a significant proportion of the LAS estate is under-utilised and not fit for purpose, with some parts built in the 1800s.
“We are at a very early stage in developing a London-wide strategy to transform our estate to meet future needs, and at all stages of this process we will ensure any changes do not impact on the care patients receive.”