AN INVESTIGATION is being demanded over allegations the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust (WAST) spent £65,000 on putting two senior staff up at a Gwent hotel - one of them allegedly staying there for four years.
Sources within the trust told the Argus that the trust's south east Wales region utilisation manager Gillian Pleming was housed at the Parkway Hotel in Cwmbran on weekdays for the last four years - at the trust's expense. She is now going back to north Wales.
It has also been claimed that Gordon Roberts stayed at the Parkway for a period of time while working as the trust's south east Wales regional director until around 18 months ago when he moved to become north Wales locality manager. The Parkway's standard room rate is currently between £90 and £110 a night during the week.
The claims come in the same week a review of the service was announced by the Welsh government amid budgetary concerns and declining performance, and a probe was launched into how a mum-to-be lost her baby after waiting two hours for an ambulance to take her from Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr to Newport's Royal Gwent Hospital.
One WAST member of staff, based in the Newport area and working on the operational side of the service, told the Argus it was thought the hotel stays had cost around £65,000.
He said: "£65,000 is an ambulance crew's wages for a year. We need more ambulances on the road and more staff recruited to do the job. Morale is very low, sickness is very high. A few people have left and some have taken the early retirement scheme and decided enough is enough."
The staff member said: "It's very difficult to explain to a family why they have waited six or seven hours for their loved one to get an ambulance."
South Wales East Assembly Member Jocelyn Davies has demanded an investigation.
She said: "This exclusive revelation by the South Wales Argus is truly shocking. Can the Ambulance Trust justify such extravagance as a good use of public money? It's time the minister ordered an investigation into the state of the Ambulance service in this country.
"What possible basis can there be for such a long-term relocation of managers from the north to Gwent? I find it unbelievable that in four years no-one from south Wales could be found who could do this job. If the relocation can be justified, then why weren’t more cost-effective ways used?
"I really feel for paramedics on the ground who work tirelessly to save lives. Their morale must be very low in hearing that at a time of cuts, management is spending scarce resources on hotel rooms for years on end."
Monmouth AM Nick Ramsay added: "£65,000 on hotel fees is clearly outrageous. I think members of the public would find it completely inefficient to spend tens of thousands of pounds on hotels when what they really need to address is why we have these gaps. It's the length of time that's the issue in this."
He said he will be raising this with the health minister Lesley Griffiths.
Labour Torfaen AM Lynne Neagle said: "If the allegations are true, then the Ambulance Trust clearly have some serious questions to answer - not least why public money appears to have been wasted at a time when we know the resources of the ambulance service on the ground are being stretched and response time targets are being missed."
We put all the allegations to WAST. It said it does not comment in issues related to individual staff.
Firefighters recruited to help
UNIONS say they are concerned that South Wales Fire and Rescue Service is recruiting community responders who would be able to respond to life-threatening calls until an ambulance or rapid response vehicle arrives. An advert says the community responders would be paid an hourly rate of £13.
According to pay scales listed on the Royal College of Nursing website, a newly qualified paramedic earns a basic salary of around £10.85 an hour.
South Wales Fire and Rescue Service's assistant chief fire officer Andy Thomas said the funding for a pilot community responder scheme, which it and WAST are looking to introduce over the coming months, has been secured by the South Wales Fire and Rescue Authority and that the rates of pay are based on those of a "competent firefighter".
Carl James, director of strategy, planning and performance at the Welsh Ambulance Service, said the Welsh Government has made it clear that all public services in Wales need to be working in partnership to provide the best possible service to the public.
He said it is working on a number of initiatives with South Wales Fire and Rescue Service including a community responder scheme which he said can be useful at times of high demand or in rural settings.
Unison branch secretary Dylan Parry said a joint union letter from Unite, Unison, the GMB and the Royal College of Nursing, has been sent to WAST's chief executive, Elwyn Price Morris, highlighting their concerns and asking for further immediate discussions.
Mr Parry said: "This is another blow to already low morale particularly being felt in this region. We have staff who are vastly more qualified who earn a lower basic hourly rate than what appears to be offered in this advert to the first responders."
AMs Nick Ramsay, Jocelyn Davies and Lynne Neagle said they were concerned by the news.
Torfaen AM Lynne Neagle added: "I'm really concerned to hear of First Responders being offered higher rates of pay than rank and file ambulance staff - particularly given that we know overtime is being heavily restricted."
She said she will contact local union colleagues and will be raising the issues with the trust and the health minister.