Give us a wider role in the NHS, say the air ambulance trusts

Air ambulance charities are proposing a significant expansion of their role in supporting the NHS when it reorganises key services before the next election.

The Department of Health is planning to reconfigure as many as 60 accident and emergency departments and maternity and paediatric units. Ambulance charities are keen to help.

David Philpott, chair of the Association of Air Ambulance Charities, discussed the prospects with health secretary Patricia Hewitt at a meeting in Kent last month.

"We are happy to do our bit," said Philpott, who is also chief executive of the Kent Air Ambulance Trust. "The impact on us of Government policy will be significant."

Some of the UK's 16 air ambulance charities are thinking of expanding their fleets to include aircraft equipped to perform more tasks, such as transporting intensive care patients.

All the charities are currently financed through private donations, but the changes could lead to some of them contracting with the Government for the first time.

"We want to move to the kind of arrangement with the Government that our friends in the hospice movement enjoy," Philpott said.

He stressed that the charities would maintain their independence and would continue to fundraise, but would ask the Government for help with clinical costs.

Philpott raised this question with Hewitt at the meeting last month.

He is also talking to the Big Lottery Fund about potential funding arrangements after Prime Minister Tony Blair recently proposed a meeting between the charities and the lottery fund.

Philpott denied that the air ambulance charities would be performing services that should be provided by the NHS. "There are no circumstances under which we will be a taxi service for the NHS," he said.

He added that the sector would intervene only in extreme circumstances, such as when there was no NHS service available or if an NHS ambulance couldn't make a journey on time.

A DoH spokesman said it already paid for air ambulance clinical staff and extra funds were a local decision.

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