AMBULANCE staff across Cumbria are 'battered from pillar to post' every day as they struggle to keep up with hundreds of call-outs, long shifts and excessive distances, it has been claimed.

The alarming description of plummeting morale within the county's emergency response teams has emerged as new figures reveal 12 per cent of the workforce within the North West Ambulance Service had time off for stress last year.

The newly released sickness data shows 386 NWAS employees suffering from stress and anxiety-related conditions took a total of 6,727 days off work during 2016/17.

GMB deputy branch secretary and NWAS paramedic Paul Turner said crews were at breaking point.

"The staff are just exhausted, they really are.

"In Cumbria they have been around 25 paramedics short.

"Staff across the service feel like they have been battered from pillar to post by the end of a shift.

"It's awful," Mr Turner added.

Cumbria is one of five areas served by the North West Ambulance Service, which employs 4,900 staff and covers an area from Carlisle in the north, across Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, to Cheshire in the south.

The service - one of 10 ambulance trusts in the UK - was judged to require improvement following an inspection by government health watchdog the Care Quality Commission last year.

The inspection team found the service was in the midst of a recruitment crisis - with the vacancy rate running at 16 per cent in Cumbria alone.

NWAS bosses claimed they were attempting to address staff shortages with an international recruitment programme and relocation packages for successful candidates.

But of 35 trained paramedics employed from overseas, just two had begun working in the county.

But Mr Turner explained experienced paramedics leave the service as quickly as new ones arrive.

"The area is just too geographically big and it causes a lot of problems for the staff," he said.

"Staff might start their shift in Barrow, have a call out to Lancaster, then to Blackpool and end up in Manchester.

"They are giving up their breaks just to try to finish on time. It's relentless.

"The resources just aren't there and neither is the proper support for staff who are inevitable suffering from stress as a result of the pressure they are under every day."

Some 12 per cent of the country's ambulance service workforce took time off for stress last year, according to the GMB Union, accounting for 81,668 days lost nationwide.

Michael Forrest, NWAS director of organisational development, said the trust was working hard to relieve the pressure on its staff.

"Although working for the ambulance service is very rewarding, it can also be a very demanding job, our operational staff work long hours and often deal with very poorly patients which can have an impact on them personally," he added.

"We work hard to ensure that our staff have access to the support they need including counselling and training for managers.

"We also work to raise awareness among our staff of the mental health charity Mind, who have set up a dedicated infoline for emergency services which provides helpful information on mental health, advice and signposting to local support services."


North West Ambulance Service: The facts

• NWAS covers an area of 5,400 square miles with a population of more than seven million people

• It has 4,900 staff and more than 1,000 emergency and non-emergency vehicles

• The service receives 1.3 million 999 calls every year

• Crews attend more than 952,000 incidents annually


How ambulance call outs work

When an ambulance responds to a call out or takes a patient to hospital, they are duty bound to respond to emergency call outs in that new location if necessary.

It means that if an ambulance crew based in Barrow transports a patient to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, they may then be diverted to a 999 call even further south - on the Fylde coast, for instance.

If that patient is transferred by ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Blackpool and another 999 call comes in from an area nearby, the crew may then be diverted again if there are no other ambulances in the vicinity.

It means that by the end of a 12-hour shift, the crew from Barrow or Carlisle can find themselves in Preston or Manchester before beginning a two hour journey time back to their original base.

The system has come under fire several times in recent years from union bosses and MPs who claim it amplifies stress for staff and can leave some areas without an ambulance crew available for emergency response.