A back-door attempt to privatise ambulance services for some of the region's most vulnerable has been slammed by Greater Manchester health workers and campaigners as "scandalous" for risking the health, safety and welfare of patients.
Ironically it has also been criticised as not even cost-effective, according to UNISON campaigners. Even though that was one of the main reasons behind the NHS Blackpool's Commissioning Business Services' awarding of the Patient Transport Service contract to bus company Arriva.
The decision to give the three year contract for providing non-emergency patient transport service in Greater Manchester to Arriva in September is the first time the service has been taken off the publicly funded North West Ambulance Service, which employs 374 staff who provide care and travel support to chemotherapy, disabled and elderly hospital patients.
It was made by obscure office bureaucrats based in Blackpool, miles away from those whose welfare they may be compromising, who make decisions for the entire North West region. It is planned that Arriva will take over the running of the service in March next year.
Now members of the Save Our NHS: Keep Manchester Ambulances Public campaign have announced their intention to tackle ministers head on when they go to parliament to present their petition on 10th December.
A 100 strong team of campaigners, flanked by UNISON's Dave Prentis and Andy Burnham, will lobby MPs to help reverse the decision and call for a public consultation. With almost 9,000 signatures under their belt the group hopes to have reached 10,000 by the date.
MPs Andy Burnham and Lucy Powell recently pledged to ask Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to look into the contract and the lack of transparency on the issue, which campaigners believe has deliberately been pushed under the radar.
"Many people in the area aren't even aware that this decision has been made, yet alone consulted, by some bodies somewhere else who don't have much relation to the area. I think that's wrong" says Craig Wilde, UNISON branch secretary for the Eccles base of North West Ambulance Services and one of the campaign founders
"Manchester Primary Care Trust officials I've spoken to are absolutely amazed that the contract has been awarded to a bus company" he adds "You've got to ask what sort of say this panel in Blackpool even let them have in this. The NHS is meant to be a non-profit making organisation that belongs to us, at heart, not politicians, councils or business services. Arriva is a purely profit-making organisation. Any money it makes won't go back into the NHS but into the pockets of their shareholders; it's scandalous."
Blackpool NHS Commissioning Business Services made the decision supposedly due to Arriva's bid being the most "economically advantageous" offer.
Hadrian Collier, of the NHS Blackpool Commissioning Service, said: "Arriva scored within 1 mark of the highest rated bid in the assessment of service quality and performance. Arriva are working with the commissioners to ensure they meet all the criteria of the contract for service commencement in April 2013 which will be enforced through the monitoring arrangements."
Yet Wilde believes there's a chance nothing will be saved from the move financially, which he says is costing the regional Strategic Health Authority exit costs from the service, hidden extras and doesn't account for what it will cost for North West Ambulance Services to re-bid for the contract in three year's time. He said: "this investment isn't even a long-term one. It's not a sensible decision even in terms of cost-saving."
"I think ultimately patients will also suffer a dip in quality of services" he adds "Staff will be delivering the service under different pressures. Our staff currently do a lot more than just pick up and drop off patients which I don't think a lot of people realise. I always like to believe we've got a chance of fighting a decision and we're not going to go down without a fight. We're certainly not going to give up because we've been to Parliament, we'll carry on doing this for as long as it takes."
Two grim reports made by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in September and October revealed that Arriva have already proved to be incapable of providing a safe and decent quality patient transport service in the East Midlands.
They took over some of the services from the public East Midlands Ambulance Service (EMAS) earlier this year. Inspections of Ambuline in Leicester, which is joint-run by Arriva, revealed they are still failing overall in four out of five essential areas. This includes providing care that meets people's needs, caring for people safely and protecting them from harm, cleanliness and infection control, staffing, quality of service and suitability of management.
According to staff and users, the company's track record appears shambolic. It has made people late for appointments, sent staff to the wrong places, used buses that were too small and was so unprepared that it had to hire taxi firms to pick up some patients. Some think not all new staff have received adequate training, Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks have not routinely carried out and ambulances have been described in some cases as so dirty that one driver said "I had to return my car this morning because I was embarrassed."
Corall Jenkins, Regional organiser for UNISON Nottingham fears for the future of the ambulance service.
"It's an absolute mess if I'm honest" she says "It's not saved the NHS any money at all. Arriva have moved into a completely different culture and now have to respond to patients' needs plus train up staff to an appropriate level; the task is too big for them. I think there's a threat that in future costs may be transferred to patients because I don't think that there was a real cost analysis process done by Arriva when they took the project on."
The danger posed by running ambulance services for profit does not even stop there. Since losing the contract EMAS has proposed to cut community ambulance stations to save £15million in the next five years, reducing its 70 ambulance stations in the area to 13 depots.
Although EMAS staff were transferred to ARRIVA and no redundancies have yet been made Ms Jenkins believes it's "very up in the air." She says new staff hired by Arriva are getting paid a lot less than existing staff who have similar roles, that all are having to fight for the right to be able to finish on time and that the company is trying to get around having to give certain meal allowances. It sets a deeply unsettling precedent for the future of the service in Salford and Manchester. However Corall Jenkins and other staff are now working with Arriva to improve the service and the company appear to be listening to them.
Angela Rayner, of UNISON North West, spoke of the complete public outrage the campaign group has witnessed whilst out campaigning, but believes that a lot more publicity needs to be done so people are aware of what is happening and can then stand up against what is essentially the start of the slippery slope to further privatisation of the NHS… "The tipping point will be the public", she explains.
Peter Lea, 63, who uses the service weekly, only found out about the privatisation after being told by a member of staff… "I'm very worried after reading the report on ARRIVA in Leicester" he says "It makes you wonder how closely the bid in Greater Manchester has been scrutinised. Being late is a very distressing experience. If we miss our appointment we have to make another which could be a risk to our health. What happens to the service if ARRIVA goes into liquidation before its contract ends, which is always a possibility?"
If you live in Salford and use the patient transport service the campaign organisers would like to hear from you. To get further details and sign the petition click here
To read the CQC verdict on Ambuline click here
There is also a demo and rally to save all Greater Manchester A&Es, Hospitals and Ambulances on Saturday 8th December 12:30 beginning at All Saints on Oxford Road and concluding at Cathedral Gardens in Manchester.