People suffering strokes are among seriously ill patients who could have to wait longer for an ambulance under controversial plans drawn up by National Health Service executives.
Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, faced demands to make a statement on the issue after the leak of secret NHS England proposals to revise ambulance response times.
Under the proposal, the target for about 40 per cent of “Red 2” patients – those judged to be seriously ill but not suffering an immediately life-threatening condition – would be increased next month from eight to 19 minutes.
The only higher category is “Red 1”, covering patients suffering potential fatal conditions such as heart failure, choking or heavy bleeding.
The leaked memo, which was written by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, said the shake-up had been approved by Mr Hunt subject to approval by ambulance trust medical directors.
The Department of Health (DoH) said no decisions had been taken on the issue and Mr Hunt would “only agree to proposed changes that improve response times for urgent cases”.
The scheme emerged at a time of anxiety within the NHS over whether accident and emergency departments could cope with a winter health crisis if there is a sustained spell of bitter weather.
The shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, claimed Mr Hunt had treated Parliament with contempt by not mentioning the proposals on Thursday when he answered MPs’ questions on health service winter planning.
“It is outrageous he decided to keep MPs and the public in the dark about a decision he had already taken and one which will have far-reaching implications across the NHS,” he said.
Mr Hunt tweeted that there are “no plans to double ambulance waiting times, and there never have been".
Martin Berry, executive officer for the College of Paramedics, said: “We are very concerned about the way this has been kept in the dark.”
A DoH spokesman said: “The Secretary of State agreed NHS England should investigate a proposal from the ambulance services to see whether the service they offer the public could be improved. No decisions have been made.”
The changes could be implemented as soon as the first week of January.
However the Department of Health said:"No decisions have been made."
Professor Keith Willett, trauma surgeon and head of NHS acute care, said: "Any operational changes to ensure ambulances reach sickest patients even quicker would need to be proposed by the senior doctors running ambulance services and agreed by the NHS nationally.
"No such decisions have been taken on their proposals, nor will they be - one way or the other - until next year."
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