HEALTH minister Edwina Hart must be prepared to "bang heads together" to get action to improve the performance of the ambulance service in South East Wales, says a regional AM.

Response times performance for category A emergency calls in Torfaen have been the worst in Wales throughout the winter, with Monmouthshire faring little better and Blaenau Gwent and Newport doing badly too, in what was a very busy December.

A Wales Audit Office (WAO) report this week highlighted ongoing problems in the service, particularly in the South East region, with handover times at accident and emergency units, most notably at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, severe staff shortages, and gaps in senior management among the key factors.

This report, an update on a WAO report issued last autumn, concluded that performance had continued to decline.

Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust officials and members of the Assembly's health committee discussed the report's findings at a hearing in Cardiff Bay, and Liberal Democrat Mike German said afterwards: "Delays and poor service for patients in South East Wales goes on and nothing that was said led the committee to believe that things were going to get better quickly.

"The question that must be addressed is why handovers for one-in-eight patients take longer than an hour at the Royal Gwent? “With this hospital working at more than 90 per cent capacity, the beds are just not there when the emergency patients need them."

The problem of slow handovers of patients from ambulances to hospitals is most acute at the Royal Gwent, at 11.8 per cent of all ambulance arrivals during 2008. But Mr German said frontline staff are doing their best under severe pressure.

"They are still waiting for the satellite navigation systems they need to get them to the patient quicker," he said, adding that funding for new ambulances, requested 13 months ago, has still not been approved.

"Meanwhile, the ambulance service and Welsh Assembly Government are in dispute, spending months arguing about how much money is needed to improve the service. Heads need to be banged together. This issue has dragged on far too long."