A union leader has urged health chiefs to take prompt action over continuing problems with the firm providing the non-emergency patient transport service.
GMB regional organiser Gary Palmer said that staff were leaving the poorly performing service and those who stayed were being poorly treated.
The service has been provided by a company called Coperforma since Friday 1 April. It took over the contract from the South East Coast Ambulance Service which still provides emergency ambulances throughout the area, including in Brighton and Hove.
The union said: “The CCGs (clinical commissioning groups) are ultimately responsible for this ongoing fiasco as Coperfoma is never going to be able to come clean and admit it can’t cope.
“Bullying, a lack of breaks and enforcing additional hours are the latest tools used by Coperforma in a last-ditch attempt to halt the continued failings in the delivery of patient transport services in Sussex.
“GMB members have reported being pressured into taking on extra shifts and having their working rotas changed at short notice to make up for serious understaffing.
“The result is that the staff transferred from SECAmb and Coperforma’s own temporary staff continue to leave as they realise that the company remains clueless on how to resolve issues around its joint operation centres at Eastbourne and Thruxton.
“Many issues have been caused by the company’s underperforming software, which can result in systems working against each other.
“Members and staff continue to see communication failings and the use of personal mobile phones and pen and paper by staff is increasingly becoming the norm as staff turn away from the Coperforma ‘Watson’ service delivery model as it continues to crash several times a day, unable to keep up with demand.
“The problem is further exacerbated a management team who are unable to implement contingency plans when the planning and automatic dispatch system fails.
“Staff constantly have to tell patients an ambulance is on its way knowing that they either won’t get through to that vehicle’s crew for hours to inform it where to go or that it will never be sent in the first place as minimal resources are directed by an automated inflexible system to the collection of patients who have often already missed their appointments or, worse, remain undeployed for hours on end.”
Mr Palmer said: “Staffing levels are now dangerously low and often it’s only through the goodwill, professionalism and ingenuity of the experienced staff transferred from SECAmb and the willingness of temporary workers that Sussex receives any type of patient transport service at all.
“How do Coperforma repay them for this commitment? Through the use of bullying and pressure to get staff to work longer, not take breaks and accept rota changes at short or no notice, to keep manning levels up and calls answered.
“Management often tell staff that should they choose not to stay on or work extra hours and shifts it is they who will be placing patients at risk, not Coperforma’s dogged perseverance with technology that’s clearly not up to the task being the cause of the ongoing detriment that patients and hospital departments find themselves with.
“Training has now become a try it and see arrangement among the staff with successes and failures being passed around the office by word of mouth, with the phrase firefighting becoming used on a daily basis.
“The dispatching of vehicles to collect and deliver patients, which still consistently fail to arrive on time or not at all, is being further damaged by management blocking staff from allocating vital work to crews.
“Instead they are being used to answer patient calls to boost call taking percentages in the hope of improving their public image locally and their reports to the CCGs.
“As a result, patients are being left high and dry and potentially, in the case of patients with renal problems, at serious risk to their health.
“The CCGs are ultimately responsible for this ongoing fiasco as Coperfoma is never going to be able to come clean and admit it can’t cope.
“The CCG must act and act now to protect Sussex patients and services alike.
“Simply sitting back and waiting for some distant investigation outcome of the whole disaster in the hope that in the meantime Coperforma might fluke a service improvement to negate their initial tendering process errors is not acceptable.
“I personally think that everyone should write to the CCG and their GPs to call for the service to be returned to SECAmb, even if only on a temporary basis, to try to get patients services back on track and commence a new tendering process and to encourage the previous NHS provider to make a bid for the service.”
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