Officials reject calls to ban emergency ambulance firm

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The Independent Online
The Department of Health last night denied any responsibility for monitoring private ambulances, as Labour repeated calls for the suspension of Britain's first independent emergency ambulance operator.

Officials rejected calls to suspend the activities of Belmont Medicover Ambulance Services, based in Woking, Surrey, whose managing director Richard Sage, it emerged yesterday, was jailed at Preston Crown Court for five years in 1986 for obtaining services by deception.

Tom Sackville, Under-Secretary for Health, said that it was no part of his department's duties to licence or check the quality of private ambulances.

Nupe, the ambulance crews' union, estimates that there are 40 to 50 operators running such services across the country, but this week Belmont invited subscriptions for the first claiming to deal with emergencies.

The Independent was unable yesterday to contact Mr Sage, a former undertaker and bankrupt. Tony Edwards, his public relations adviser, said that he too had been trying to contact Mr Sage, whom he had first met a week ago. Stewart Gray, a duty controller handling emergency calls for Belmont, was taking press calls for Mr Sage: 'I am being inundated. I don't know where he is.'

Belmont was said by Nupe to have only between three and six ambulances. Mr Edwards believed there were about a dozen, though he had only seen four. He was not aware how many staff were employed by the company.

The company had claimed to have attracted 1,000 subscriptions, at a cost of pounds 35 per individual and pounds 65 for a two-adult, two-child family, for its emergency service over the past month. Although it was only operating currently in London and the immediate Home Counties, it hoped to extend nation-wide eventually.

Yesterday, the Association of Chief Ambulance Officers joined the calls from Labour and Nupe for government intervention to ban companies from trying to get business as emergency ambulance operators.

In its promotional material, Belmont stated that it 'regularly undertakes emergency assignments for many of the major teaching hospitals', including St Thomas's.

A spokesman for the hospital said that Belmont had brought private patients to St Thomas's on occasions, but he was not aware of any other connections.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, repeated his call for the suspension of Belmont's services pending an inquiry. 'It is a scandal that the Department of Health appears to have made no effort to check Mr Sage's and his company's credentials. Virgina Bottomley (Secretary of State for Health) should make clear her intention to legislate to close this loophole in the law,' he said.

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