Whistleblower shares story of bullying, fatigue and 'dangerous' hours at ambulance service

Tom Abell chief executive of East of England Ambulance service trust

Tom Abell (inset) will look to improve the East of England Ambulance service after he was appointed its chief executive. - Credit: Sonya Duncan/EEAST

For one whistleblower, life at the East of England Ambulance service is proving too much, so much that she feels it is on the brink of collapse. 

Claims of bullying, extreme fatigue and unhealthy working hours within the service have sparked concerns that it is not improving since being put in ‘special measures’ two years ago. 

“Unsustainable I would probably say is the most accurate description,” the whistleblower told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. 

“I’ve not experienced bullying from the top down, but I know there are people that have and are still experiencing it.” 

The whistleblower said it is unsustainable for paramedics to continue working at the ambulance service for reasons such as the work load, impact on mental health and no meal breaks. 

She said that due to the lack of breaks within shifts, she has had to take action. 

“I have had to punch my crewmate awake when they have fallen asleep at the wheel,” said the whistleblower. 

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“I’ve had to not go into a job and let my crewmates go in alone as I wouldn’t be in a safe place to attend my patient. 

“It’s bad when you think people are working 12 hours and on top of that, they are not getting their meal break and on top of that, they are working an extra two to three hours.” 

She believes that working long hours is "dangerous" as staff aim to be “on top of your game at all times”. 

Tom Abell chief executive of EEAST

Claims of bullying, extreme fatigue and dangerously long hours have been made against the East of England Ambulance service (EEAST). Pictured is Tom Abell, chief executive at EEAST. - Credit: EEAST

Asked whether she is only a minority of paramedics who feel this way about the service, the whistleblower disagreed. 

“Back 10, 20 years ago, the shelf life of a paramedic is 20 years at least. You’re now looking at less than seven years,” she warned. 

The whistleblower claimed response times are, mostly, not being met and that there are not enough ambulances to meet demand. 

In some cases, the whistleblower believes paramedics have had to wait over half a day with patients outside of hospital. 

“The maximum time I have stayed outside a hospital is five-and-a-half hours,” she said.  

“The highest maximum time I’ve heard of is 17 hours for a patient waiting in the back of an ambulance.” 

It was also claimed that the details given to paramedics on a patient have often been incorrect. 

The whistleblower said: “We will make our minds up on how quickly we need to be there based on the information we have got.  

“Very often, that information is incorrect so we will rush there for no reason or we may not rush quite so heavily to protect ourselves on the road when we should have been rushing a lot more.” 

In response to the allegations, Councillor Richard Howitt said he is concerned that the ambulance service is failing to transform itself quickly enough. 

Cllr Howitt, chair of the adults and health committee of Cambridgeshire County Council, fears efforts to transform the ambulance service “may be getting worse”. 

“The fact that targets for response times for people suffering chest pain and possible stroke are being missed by more than double, is of real public concern,” he said. 

“The paramedics are part of our community and they should be thanked for what they do and we should do everything possible to support them and the service to be able to improve.” 

In a statement, the East of England Ambulance Trust (EEAST) said it is trying to improve response times for patients. 

“The health and care system is under significant pressure,” they said.  

“We are working with partner organisations to reduce delays and the impact they have on patients.” 

In October 2020, EEAST was put in ‘special measures’ after a Care Quality Commission inspection. 

Cllr Howitt said the target for an ambulance arriving in ‘C2’ cases (strokes and chest pain) is 18 minutes, but figures given to Cambridgeshire County Council show this to be over 48 minutes at present. 

Workers union UNISON believe a “clear recovery plan” is needed to improve the EEAST. 

The EEAST statement added: “Part of this work includes developing cohorting areas at acute hospitals where patients can be assessed by going into the emergency department so we can get ambulances back on the road more quickly.”