CHARITIES, private ambulance firms and mountain rescue teams are responding to thousands of emergency incidents on behalf of the area's beleaguered NHS ambulance trust.

New figures accessed by the Evening Mail reveal the North West Ambulance Service has spent more than £17m on ambulances and staff from private providers since April 2015.

The money has gone to a number of firms while charities such as the St John Ambulance, British Red Cross and even mountain rescue squads have also provided support.

The situation is believed to be particularly acute across Barrow and Furness which can be left without any NHS cover when ambulances transport sick patients to other hospitals and are then duty bound to respond to incoming emergency calls in that area.

But trust bosses maintain patients are safe, with the service's trained call handlers dispatching "well trained and expert crews" to appropriate calls.

A spokesman for NWAS said: "Like other ambulance trusts throughout the country, we have partnerships with voluntary agencies that help us to deliver our service.

"This includes working with well trained and expert crews from organisations such as mountain rescue teams, the Red Cross and St John Ambulance.

"We have worked with the organisations for many years and we do call upon them during periods of high 999 demand, such as busy winter periods or during severe weather conditions when we need temporary additional resource support.

"During this year we have made use of a number of providers to support us on many occasions."

The spokesman added private crews usually attend patients with a lower acuity who may not need the specialist care of paramedics.

But he added: "We are facing a significant demand for our service and the use of external ambulances helps to provide back-up to our existing resources so that our emergency ambulance crews are free to get to those in most need."

The North West Ambulance Service, which provides ambulances in Cumbria as well as the NHS 111 advice line, is struggling to meet an escalating number of 999 calls made to its centres every day.

The situation is worsened by a chronic shortage of paramedics, particularly in Cumbria.

It resulted in independently run companies and voluntary aid organisations attending 35,213 incidents on behalf of NWAS in 2015/16 and a further 33,576 between April and December last year.

In the 2015/16 financial year, NWAS responded to 74.8 per cent of the most serious emergency Red 1 calls within eight minutes, missing the national target of 75 per cent by a fraction.

A new report released by the National Audit Office found every 999 call received by NWAS costs the trust £179. That figure rockets to £270 every time an ambulance is dispatched.

Labour's John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness, has called for a review of ambulance cover in the North West after confirming he has serious concerns that Barrow does not have enough ambulance provision in place.

Mr Woodcock said: "The staff in our ambulances do fantastic work under extraordinary pressure, whether they work for NWAS or for any other provider.

"Consolidation of hospital services means more and more patients being transported to hospitals and further afield, leaving areas like Barrow seriously short of cover and increasing the reliance on third sector providers.

"This will only get worse if further consolidation is allowed to take place.

"There should be a proper review into ambulance cover in the North West to establish the extent of the problem and put in place a strategy to provide proper ambulance cover across the region."

Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "Ambulance services are not something that should be flung out to the private sector.

“We should not be offering this out to the lowest bidder. It’s not what people want or expect, and the NHS needs more paramedics."

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