PRIVATE sector ambulance crews will attend emergency calls in South East Wales at weekends this month, the first time the service has sought outside help with 'blue light' work in Wales.

A "small number" of private ambulances will operate alongside Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust (WAST) crews in the region next weekend, and subsequent weekends in September.

The trust says the measure is necessary because of a shortfall in staff to fill rotas, and has turned to the private sector to maintain patient safety.

But the union Unison CymruWales, which represents many ambulance and other NHS staff, says the move will cover up staffing shortfalls, and could be the "thin end of the wedge" for private sector involvement in vital health services in Wales.

The trust, which has a budget of around £150 million, and was last week handed almost £4m of Welsh Government money for new vehicles, has not revealed the cost of the private sector input. But it is adamant it had to act to make sure sufficient ambulances are available to cover weekend shifts.

“The trust is committed to providing the very best care possible to the people of Wales and recognises the need to do this safely within its available resources," said a spokesman.

“Currently the trust’s rotas are not totally aligned to expected demand and this, together with vacancies, sickness, annual leave and training, inevitably means that on occasion some shifts go uncovered.

“Every attempt is made to cover shortfalls in the rotas by offering our staff extra shifts, but despite our best efforts there are still some shifts which remain uncovered.

“In order to meet demand and maintain the focus on patient safety, we have decided to utilise a small number of private ambulances, which will support us in the South East Wales region during each weekend in September.

“In addition, the trust is recruiting extra staff as part of a recruitment drive which has recently seen the appointment of more than 80 extra staff into the workforce, including in the emergency medical service, patient care service, urgent care service and NHS Direct Wales.

“A number of HEI (Higher Education Institute) paramedics, who graduated in July, are also expected to be operational from December.

“The emergency healthcare system in Wales continues to face significant pressure, so we urge people to support us by using NHS services appropriately."

Unison Cymru/Wales will raise the issue with the Welsh Government and seek assurances that it will not continue.

"We are surprised and disappointed that a private company has been drafted in to provide emergency ambulance services that should be delivered by the public sector," said ambulance sector lead Darron Dupre.

“Use of the private sector in this way will only serve to mask staffing and resource problems within ambulance services. This is not beneficial for the service or the public.

"In our experience, use of the private sector to deliver ambulance services leads to a decline in the quality of services and has longer term costs.

“We are understandably concerned that this may become the thin end of the wedge and we will begin to see more outsourcing of critical NHS services.

“UNISON is clearly opposed to such an approach and, given the Welsh Government’s public opposition to the use of the private sector in the NHS, we are concerned that private companies are providing these services at all."