Bottomley orders inquiry after 999 call delay

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AN URGENT inquiry into the London Ambulance Service has been ordered by the Secretary of State for Health, Virgina Bottomley, in response to the death of a child earlier this year.

Nasima Begum, 11, who had a rare kidney disorder, waited 53 minutes in June for an ambulance to take her to the Royal London Hospital, where she died three and a half hours later.

Her brother made four desperate phone calls but was told to wait. He was told: 'We haven't got an ambulance.'

Details of the case became public last week when reports of the ambulance service's own inquiry showed that 'staff error' had contributed to Nasima's death. At the time only 12 out of 18 ambulances were available, according to reports. When the 11pm shift changed, only nine were on the road. Calls made after those made by Nasima's brother were given priority.

Mrs Bottomley has appointed William Wells, chairman of South Thames Regional Health Authority, to conduct a fresh inquiry. She says in her letter to him: 'You will report to me before Christmas on the action needed to improve the deployment of LAS staff, rostering and the timing of annual leave, the incidence of absence for sickness and any other matters you consider to be relevant.'

The report will be made public, she says. She points out that the ambulance service has been allocated an extra pounds 14.8m this year for additional staff. Two-thirds of the 300 staff have completed their initial training.

However, David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, called for a public inquiry and accused Mrs Bottomley of passing the buck. 'An internal inquiry is simply inadequate. To pass the buck and blame trade unions for the total failure of health ministers to accept or carry responsibility is breathtaking.'

Government guidelines say a London ambulance should arrive within 14 minutes of a 999 call. Only 68 per cent of calls were inside the target last month compared with 63 per cent in 1993.

The ambulance service says the lack of improvement can be explained by an unexpected 12 per cent increase in emergency calls.

Linda Perks, union negotiator for the service, said: 'The root cause of the problems is not enough staff or vehicles on the streets of London.

'The Government has presided over a 20 per cent staffing reduction over the last decade. Although numbers are increasing they are still inadequate to deal with the 12 per cent increase in patient numbers over the past year alone.'