Calls for rapid testing of ambulance staff in Wales with more than 17% off work

More than 17% of ambulance staff in Wales are currently unable to work because of sickness and coronavirus self-isolation rules while paramedics report extreme pressures on their services, the PA news agency can reveal.

This week, 442 employees were absent due to Covid and non-Covid-related sickness, while 248 were isolating after testing positive for the virus, being a close contact of someone who had, or were displaying symptoms.

The Welsh Ambulance Service said it currently has a workforce of 4,051 across the country, with 10.91% off sick and 6.1% self-isolating on Monday December 21.

Figures also show that last month only 59.5% of emergency responses to life-threatening calls arrived within eight minutes, the fourth consecutive month the Welsh Government’s 65% target has not been reached.

From Wednesday, more than 90 soldiers from the British Army will assist Welsh ambulance teams for the second time during the pandemic to help them deal with what the service described as “extreme pressure” contributed to by a rapid surge of Covid-19 cases across the country.

Rapid lateral flow testing, which gives results within 30 minutes even for those who do not show any symptoms, was made available to test frontline health and social care workers twice weekly by the Welsh Government from December 14, in part to help avoid staff unnecessarily having to self-isolate.

But the rapid tests have only been introduced to a percentage of ambulance staff across Wales on a trial basis, with a rollout expected in the new year.

The Welsh Conservatives’ shadow health minister, Andrew RT Davies, said regular rapid testing should be rolled out to the entire ambulance workforce immediately to help combat the increasing pressure on their service.

Mr Davies told PA: “Our NHS staff and volunteers have been incredibly heroic during this pandemic, and yet the Welsh Government is letting them and the people of Wales down.

“These heroes don’t want to be sat at home, they want to be out doing their jobs, none more so than our brave ambulance drivers and paramedics who face extreme challenges every single day.

“It is then surprising that the Welsh Government is only testing members of the Welsh Ambulance Service on a trial basis to enable them to carry on doing their jobs, when they should be testing regularly across Wales.

“By not catching asymptomatic carriers it is putting an incredible strain on the service and exacerbating problems with 999 calls. This is especially clear during busy periods where A&Es refuse to take patients, leaving people either stuck on ambulances or, worse still, waiting hours for an ambulance to come help them.

“The people of Wales and our brave NHS staff deserve better.”

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “The Welsh Ambulance Service has begun a pathfinder programme for regularly testing staff and this will shortly be rolled out to all critical staff, based on a clinical risk assessment.”