The ambulance service is in a state of emergency

(The Spectator – ) – Tom leant back against the bathroom wall, his face streaked with blood from the nosebleed, eyes half shut like an owl. ‘I’m passing out,’ he said. Then his legs gave way and he slumped to the floor. ‘Tom? Tom?’ I shook him but — nothing, no response. His hands began an awful looping tremor.

Five minutes before, I hadn’t been much worried, a little bossy even, enjoying playing nursemaid to a friend. It’s only a nosebleed T. Now. Don’t tip your head back, you’ll choke. Lean forward over the sink, pinch your nose. Like this. Here.

As Tom lost consciousness, so my reality changed. This was a different world — one in which T might be having a fit, or dying. My thoughts moved at different speeds. The big ones were insufferably slow: make sure T can breathe. Find phone. Call 999. Smaller, more selfish thoughts darted around them: Oh God. What’s that shaking? Is he epileptic? Why won’t he wake up? Can I bear it? I want to run away. What sort of person even thinks that?

About seven minutes after I called 999, the first paramedic arrived on a motorbike. As he knelt down, T’s eyes opened. A short while later an ambulance arrived and a second paramedic ran through a series of checks. Not a seizure at all, he said, just a sudden, dramatic drop in blood pressure — but we’ll take Tom to hospital to make sure. I can still see the scene: T drooping and bloody, around him the men in green. I felt the sort of surge of gratitude that welds a person forever to the idea of the NHS. To have somewhere to turn when you’ve reached your wits’ end, to be able to call for help without fretting about debt, seemed suddenly to be the very pinnacle of civilisation.

T’s incident was a fortnight ago, but the relief remains, which is why I noticed and read a story last week about a crisis among London’s paramedics. Figures from the London Health Board showed that 238 people left the London Ambulance Service (LAS) in 2013–14. Only 80 left in 2011–2012. That’s an extraordinary increase. Thirty paramedics left in May 2014 alone. I read the whole report which suggested, almost casually, that there could be 600 frontline vacancies across the LAS by the end of this year. Six hundred paramedics down! Why is no one taking this more seriously?


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