New Welsh ambulance fleet off road due to safety fears

A fleet of new ambulances is being kept off the road because of safety concerns, a BBC Wales investigation has revealed.

The Welsh Ambulance Service confirmed that half the 42 vehicles due to be operational weeks ago are unsatisfactory and not yet in service.

Of 56 potential problems identified, 12 could compromise safety.

Initially describing it as an "internal matter", the trust says its ability to deliver services is not compromised.

The problems include the positioning of seats, cupboards and handles, as well as a shortage of interior space.

There are also concerns that the opening and closing of the rear door could potentially cause injury.

It is thought the bill for modifying the ambulances could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

A Welsh Ambulance Service Trust spokesperson said only half the 42 new Mercedes 519 ambulances were in service.

"We have made a decision to delay the introduction of 21 vehicles following an inspection of the ambulances by our vehicle working group, which included senior management members who agreed this action," said the spokesperson.

"The trust and the manufacturer are working very closely through a number of modifications and adjustments, most of which are minor, to make sure these vehicles will match and surpass the standard set by our current fleet of emergency ambulances and we are satisfied with the progress made."

'Serious questions'

The trust stressed that "none of the current fleet marked for replacement by these new ambulances will be taken out of service until they are ready, so this decision will not have any impact on the current service provided to the public by the Welsh Ambulance Service."

"The trust is confident these vehicles will be in service at the earliest opportunity," added the spokesperson.

Swansea University professor of health economics Ceri Phillips said "serious questions have to be asked" about the trust's commissioning process.

"Who is actually going to pick up the bill for the additional work that needs to be undertaken on the ambulances?"

The vehicles were intended to replace older ambulances currently in use as part of the 221 emergency vehicle fleet.

Liberal Democrat AM Peter Black said: "The news that the Wales Ambulance Service is once more struggling with procurement issues is both disturbing and unwelcome.

"This is public money and we need to be assured that it is being spent effectively and efficiently."

In 2005 it emerged 46 newly converted vehicles were overweight when fully laden with fuel and people, and needed to be altered to make them safe.

'Waste of money'

In 2002 the trust bought 30 ambulances but the supplier went out of business before the contract was completed, and those which were delivered were found unsuitable for work in emergencies.

The Unite union, which represents many paramedics in Wales, said it was aware of the concerns, and hoped to work with the ambulance trust to resolve them.

Plaid Cymru AM Llyr Huws Gruffydd said: "To see this happening again, and the potential waste of hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is quite galling.

"It's a total waste of public money - if we as taxpayers end up having to pay for the necessary renovations then I think it's an abhorrence.

"It's totally unacceptable and serious questions have to be asked about the way the ambulance trust is run."

Conservative health spokesman, Darren Millar, also criticised the purchases.

"The Welsh Labour Government urgently needs to get a grip on this issue. Hundreds of thousands of pounds could be needlessly wasted here, and not for the first time.

"That money should be spent on cutting waiting times for ambulances, not adjusting their seats and doors because the order was wrong.

"This raises serious concerns about the ambulance trust's procurement process and Labour needs to provide assurances that public money is being spent properly." he said.

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