Ambulances must focus on patients, says Audit Office
Ambulance services have been too focused on response times and not enough on patient care, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
A NAO report said patients' emergency care was being delayed, with ambulances forced to queue outside hospitals and unable to respond to other calls.
The health minister Simon Burns blamed the previous Labour government's "perverse fixation" with targets.
Some targets have since been removed by the coalition government.
Under current guidelines, category A ambulance calls - which include the most serious life-threatening conditions - should be responded to within eight minutes.
In April 2011 the government removed the 19 minute target for category B - or not immediately life threatening - calls and replaced it with measures of the quality of care.
Auditor General Amyas Morse, said: "The time taken to respond to calls has until recently been the be-all-and-end-all of measuring the performance of ambulance services.
"Illustrating the principle that, what gets measured gets done, the result has been a rapid response to urgent and emergency calls.
"However, this led to an increase in the number of multiple responses to incidents equating to millions of unnecessary ambulance journeys."
The report said more than one in five patients had to wait more than the recommended 15 minutes before being accepted by the hospital.
This can lead to queues of ambulances outside hospital unable to go to other emergencies, the report adds.
Mr Morse said: "It is welcome that the Department of Health has now introduced new measures and a new broader performance regime, but improvements to the whole urgent and emergency care system will depend on its working more coherently."
Christina McAnea, Unison's Head of Health, said: "The NAO report shows that the most cost effective response to 999 calls is to get the right people, with the right skills to patients first.
"Time-driven targets has led to the ratio of clinical to non-clinical staff going down and trusts need to reverse this damaging trend."
Health Minister Simon Burns said: "This report is clear evidence that Labour's perverse fixation with bureaucratic targets distorted clinical priorities and undermined patient care.
"During their 13 years in power, Labour never bothered to consider the outcomes of NHS treatment for patients.
"Instead, they left the NHS with a bloated bureaucracy and doctors and nurses tied up in red tape.
"We're pleased the National Audit Office has endorsed our approach of focussing on a wider range of patient outcomes - not just arbitrary targets."