Ambulance chief quits after patients die in computer failure

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The Independent Online
THE CHIEF executive of the London Ambulance Service resigned yesterday over allegations that up to 20 people may have died because of the collapse of a new computer system controlling emergency calls.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, was forced to announce an external inquiry into the 36 hours over Monday and Tuesday which saw delays of up to three hours in ambulances arriving.

Nupe, the public employees' union which represents ambulance staff, said that the resignation of John Wilby was recognition of management failure, but the Government was to blame for years of underfunding.

Mrs Bottomley's response to the 'teething troubles' with the pounds 1.5m computer system introduced in stages since January drew angry responses from backbenchers on both sides.

David Blunkett, Labour health spokesman, demanded that outside managerial expertise be brought in and accused Mrs Bottomley of failing to respond to the clear signs of crisis that had been building up for months.

Despite union warnings management brought the computer- aided dispatch system fully on stream at 3am on Monday, giving cross-London coverage for the first time. The capital had been divided into three sectors - south of the Thames, north-east and north-west - with teams dispatching ambulances in each area by a combination of two-way radio and telephone, and computer displays in vehicles. Attempts to introduce the system partially in March collapsed.

The full introduction of the computer system in effect did away with the radio and telephones calls to stations, with the computer dispatching crews to answer calls.

But within hours, during the morning rush, it became obvious to crews and control room staff that calls were being lost in the system; ambulances were arriving late or doubling up on calls. Distraught emergency callers were also held in a queuing system that failed to put them through for up to 30 minutes.

Chris Humphreys, Nupe's divisional officer, said that it was hard to verify how many people might have died because of the delays but it could be as many as 20.

However, the ambulance service contradicted claims that one 14-year-old boy had died of an asthma attack after waiting 45 minutes. It said that the call was dealt with in 28 minutes - although the Patient's Charter has a target of 14 minutes.

Management said initially yesterday that control room staff at Waterloo had been overloaded by the new system as they tried to respond to the extraordinary level of calls.

But in the Commons Mrs Bottomley conceded that the computer system 'broke down' and that the old system, which normally handles about 2,300 emergency calls a day, would remain in operation until the problems had been solved.

Martin Gorham, deputy chief executive of South West Thames Regional Health Authority, is to take over from Mr Wilby until a replacement is found.

Mrs Bottomley said that a chief executive of another metropolitan ambulance service would be appointed to head the inquiry, the results of which would be made public as soon as possible.

But her responses and earlier failures to act on numerous warnings left MPs dismayed. David Mellor, who represents Putney, called in his first Commons contribution since resigning as Secretary of State for Heritage for 'top to bottom reform'.

Leading article, page 26

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