Revealed: How the North West Ambulance Service is spending millions on private hire taxis to transport patients

Ten years after it promised to reassess it’s reliance on taxis, the North West Ambulance Service is still spending millions a year on them.

NWAs headquarters in Broughton
NWAs headquarters in Broughton

In the year to November, the service has spent more than £2.88m on private hire vehicles to get people who need special support to and from their healthcare appointments.

In Covid-hit 2020, the average monthly spend on taxis was over £135,000, which rose to an average of £288,000 a month for the 10 months available this year.

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The Trust said taxis were needed to “support the swift discharge of patients from hospitals”, and the pandemic has caused an increase in their use, due to social distancing problems in their own ambulances, and because other drivers have been supporting 999 crews or shielding.

NWAS HQ in Broughton

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The biggest spend on taxis in a month in 2021 was £392,973 in February - when the country was in its third lockdown and tight travel restrictions were in place.

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In some months, firms have been invoicing for hundreds of thousands of pounds a month from publicly-funded NWAS.

The true figure of such spending is likely to be much higher as millions more has been spent supplementing the Trust’s own Patient Transport Service with private ambulances, and data released does not account for invoices below £25,000.

"Taking our NHS for a ride"

In 2019, research by PA news agency showed England’s ambulance trusts spent more than £92 million in a year on private ambulances and taxis to transport patients.

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At that time, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said patients were “utterly fed up” of profiteering companies ”taking our NHS for a ride.”

In 2011, NWAS was criticised for spending £9.9m in the three years since April 2008. At that time service bosses said the Patient Transport Service was undergoing a modernisation programme in conjunction with new eligibility criteria, to ensure that only those with a genuine medical need could access the service.

They also vowed to provide taxis for renal outpatients only, due to the treatment taking place out of core hours.

Uplift in taxi use

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But today, NWAS bosses have admitted that there has been an uplift in the use of taxis, with the pandemic putting greater strain on the service.

In 2020, NWAS undertook 376,763 taxi journeys, and in 2021 to October, a further 384,243 journeys.

A NWAS spokesman said: “Taxis and third-party providers within PTS are often necessary to provide a responsive and flexible service, particularly during surges in demand. They’re also used regularly to support the swift discharge of patients from hospitals, vital in maintaining patient flow. We have, however, seen an increase in their use as a result of the pandemic.

“To maintain social distancing in our ambulances and third party- vehicles, we have been operating under reduced capacity.

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“We must make more individual journeys as multiple patients could have previously been carried in the same vehicle. In addition, we have seen a section of our staff support the 999 emergency service while many of our volunteer car drivers have been shielding.”

The Trust-run Patient Transport Service and private ambulances are staffed by care Assistants, not paramedics and drivers have basic Life Saving Training and manual handling training.

Private Hire Taxi drivers are not required to have any such training or specialist equipment.

The NWAS spokesman added: “We need to be clear that the use of taxis does not put our patients at risk. Eligible users must walk unaided and not have any special medical requirements, while patients with more complex needs are always transported in specialist ambulances with appropriate apparatus.

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“While we are constantly reviewing the level of third party vehicles use, this balanced against hitting the requirements and performance targets of our PTS contract.”

The Trust sais that while they are constantly reviewing the level of third party vehicles use, this is balanced against hitting the requirements and performance targets of their PTS contract.

What is the Patient Transort Service (PTS)?

- Patient Transport Service (PTS) is a non-emergency service for people who may need special support getting to and from their healthcare appointments. We provide the service for patients in Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

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- PTS is staffed by Care Assistants, not Paramedics / Emergency Medical Technicians. Drivers have Basic Life Saving Training and manual handling training.

- NWAS volunteer car drivers have the same training and use their own private vehicles for transports patients.

- Clients eligibility for taxis is evaluated by mobility assessment mandated by the Department for Health which tests their ability to walk without help or any other medical need.