PRIVATE sector ambulances helped a struggling NHS service with emergency cover at weekends 558 times in Gwent in the first 10 months of 2014, according to new figures.

And with an under-pressure Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust (WAST) continuing to use private back-up to help with weekend emergency calls in the past two months, that figure is sure to have risen.

Overall during January-October, private sector ambulances assisted with emergency cover on 1,734 occasions across Wales.

The figures, revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Welsh Conservatives, show that by far the bulk of private sector ambulance involvement has occurred in WAST's South East Wales region.

This covers Gwent's five council areas - Newport, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent, Monmouthshire and Caerphilly, plus Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Merthyr Tydfil.

The region accounted for 1,274 calls involving private sector ambulances, equating to almost three-quarters of the total.

In the Gwent (Aneurin Bevan University Health Board) area, the 558 emergency responses during January-October involving private sector ambulances, was just 30 less than the total for the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board area.

The Argus revealed on September 2 that WAST was to employ private sector assistance at weekends in South East Wales until further notice, due to long-running difficulties in staffing rotas, particularly at weekends.

The trust has been involved in a major recruitment drive for paramedics and emergency medical technicians, and though some of these are now trained and out on the roads, the Argus again revealed - earlier this month - that it is likely to be next April before the full complement of staff required are in post.

The figures revealed in the FOI relate only to weekends, and there is no indication as to whether such private sector back-up has been needed during weekdays.

The Welsh Conservatives have stated that they do not oppose use of the private sector if required, but the party is seeking to make political hay out of the situation, stating that Welsh Labour has been previously opposed to such outside involvement, although health minister Mark Drakeford recently refused to rule out its use in areas consistently missing response time targets.

"The minister need only look at these figures to see that the independent sector is already being used to prop up weekend cover right across Wales," said Welsh Conservatives shadow health minister Darren Millar.

“As the person in charge of the NHS, he must clarify whether he knows this is the case and - crucially - whether he supports it.

“It’s obvious that the service is still in dire straits and capacity is clearly not meeting demand."

The union Unison CymruWales, which represents many ambulance and other NHS staff, could not be contacted at the time of going to press - but it has previously warned that the use of private sector ambulances will cover up staffing shortfalls, and could be the "thin end of the wedge" for private sector involvement in vital health services in Wales.

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Like other parts of the UK, demands on the emergency ambulance service in Wales are significant at present and using private providers is a short term solution to mitigate this pressure.

In order to meet demand and maintain focus on patient safety, the ambulance services trust has used a small number of private ambulance providers to support delivery in the South East Wales region over recent weekends. We continue to take a practical approach, using private ambulances where necessary to provide a service to patients.

"We continue to invest in the Welsh Ambulance Service to upgrade the ambulance fleet, with a further £4m announced recently. We have also invested in the refurbishment of emergency departments to improve handover times."