HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc149-50
7. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What Government financial support is given to the provision of air ambulance services. [127515]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart)

Air ambulance services in England are financed largely through public subscription. We support existing services by providing qualified paramedic crew through the national health service.

Mr. Heath

Given that there is evidence that air ambulance services can result in a significant reduction in deaths in transit and from head injuries and in the amount of time spent in intensive care, is not it extraordinary that they are entirely dependent on public subscription and charitable fund raising? Even more extraordinarily, I am told that some ambulance trusts charge air ambulance services for providing paramedics to go out and save people. Would it not be better if this country were to follow the example of Germany, where there is properly co-ordinated, comprehensive air ambulance cover, which is at least partly publicly funded?

Ms Stuart

I fear that I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman because the evidence on the clinical outcome is by no means as persuasive as his question would suggest. Professor Jon Nicholls made it clear in his report, "The costs and effectiveness of helicopter emergency ambulance services", that the evidence is not convincing. All the local studies on the outcomes, including those in London, have not made the case for air ambulances. However, it is important that we support them. In some areas they are most appropriate, not least in the hon. Gentleman's area, where the NHS provides 14 trained paramedics to support the service. According to all our evidence, the optimal solution for the 11 air ambulances in the current structure would be to work with the ambulance services, the police and the military when necessary.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

When my hon. Friend considers the financing of air ambulance services, will she also consider the position of those independent air ambulance services that are sometimes used by the national health service? Will she also consider the need to introduce guidelines for both the staffing and the equipping of air ambulances? Although many air ambulances do an exceptionally good job, there is no guarantee to patients being transferred that standards will be the same as in a road ambulance.

Ms Stuart

That is an important consideration and my hon. Friend may be aware that in the north-west consultation is taking place in the working group on developing proper proposals and protocols for transfer. We agree with her basic sentiment and will certainly take that forward.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Will the Minister consider carefully the evidence that has come forward, particularly in rural areas, on air ambulances and the way in which they are funded? I understand that the lottery is not willing to provide funds to help the NHS with air ambulances, although a lot of money has been taken from the lottery to replace old NHS equipment. There is not the additionality that people are looking for, but surely additionality is important. I should be grateful if she considered that carefully.

Ms Stuart

It is easy to assume that air ambulances would always provide solutions, certainly in rural areas, and Cornwall was one of the first to have an air ambulance. However, it should be remembered that civilian staffed air ambulances operate only during daytime hours and that the task has its own hazards. For example, there have been a number of civilian deaths in the past few years during such operations so we need to look much more closely at how we get to patients more quickly, whether in rural or urban areas. Our work to improve the ambulance service and support the air ambulance service, rather than thinking that extending air ambulance services would solve the problems experienced in some rural areas, is the right way forward.

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