Ambulance chiefs face attack over computer failure

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The Independent Online
A TEAM set up to look into the London Ambulance Service after its computerised emergency service broke down last October is today expected to criticise management heavily and increase pressure for resignations.

The three-strong independent inquiry team is not expected to name patients to whose deaths the breakdown may have contributed. It is, however, expected to note that the LAS has had to give evidence at more than 20 coroners' courts since the breakdown last October.

The team's report is expected to be highly critical of the computer-aided dispatch system, and its ability to fulfil the tasks demanded of it. The CAD system broke down twice within 10 days of being switched into full control, and was abandoned in favour of a manual system after it was found to be incapable of dealing with a surge in workload.

Yesterday, Martin Gorham, the new chief executive of the LAS, admitted that no proper records existed of hundreds of complaints made about delays in emergency runs. He told a Commons Select Committee studying health ombudsman reports that London's record was probably Britain's worst: 'The records I have inherited are not accurate. I find it embarrassing . . . I inherited a system that was not working at all.'

The LAS management has admitted that more than 900 complaints from the public, received since July 1992, are still outstanding. These are coming in at a rate of about 200 a month, Mr Gorham said yesterday.

Chris Humphreys, senior London officer for the National Union of Public Employees, said he expected the report to conclude that the computer system was rushed in in an effort to improve the service. 'If it had been a good computer system it probably would have done, but it was in fact wholly inadequate to do the job,' he said.

Mr Humphreys also expected the inquiry to criticise LAS management for failing to train staff properly to use the new computer, or even to consult them.

Although he expected the report to apportion blame, he said he was not desperate to see people disciplined or prosecuted for last year's events. He said it was now most important to put things right. 'What we need now is a new computer and more staff to strengthen the management team.'

Last year's computer failure led to the resignation of the chief executive of the LAS, John Wilby. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, then set up the independent inquiry.