Many Ambulances services are looking outside the U.K for recruitment as the country falls into a desperate shortage of trained staff.
New figures show NHS trusts are turning to Poland, Australia and Ireland in a bid to plug vacancy rates which are now as high as one in four in many parts of the country.
In total, 60% of the countries trusts say they are now making plans to recruit from oversea’s, or have recently hired foreign paramedics.
The growing crisis comes as the Health Secretary and unions prepare to enter last ditch talks in a bid to avert a 12 hour strike by paramedics and hospital staff planned for Thursday, in a dispute over salaries. If the strike goes ahead, GPs and hospital staff will be drafted in an attempt to fill the gaps.
NHS trusts have always looked abroad for positions such as nurses and doctors but this is the first time they are actively seeking paramedics on a large scale.
London Ambulance Service has just recruited 175 paramedics from Australia and New Zealand, the first of whom started work this month.
Ambulance services in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire meanwhile, have begun recruiting paramedics from Poland, and will return next month in search of more staff, while Yorkshire Ambulance Service trust is running recruitment campaigns in Australia and Ireland.
Research by the respected magazine Health Service Journal discloses that in total, 183 paramedics have been recruited from abroad since April, most by London Ambulance Service. The previous year, just one worker was recruited from overseas.
Senior managers said a national shortage of trained staff meant they were forced to think of “ever more creative” ways to fill posts, with some turning attempting to recruit those leaving the army, while others went abroad.
Experts said the shortages meant that increasingly, serious 999 calls which required the skills of a paramedic, were only being sent more junior staff, with long delays before “back up” was provided.
Richard Webber, national spokesman for the College of Paramedics said: “It’s now become a regular occurrence for vehicles responding to potentially life-threatening calls to be going out without a paramedic on them.”
Patients’ groups said the short staffing was putting lives at risk, and raised concerns that recruitment of paramedics from non-English speaking countries could result in communication difficulties.
Language checks are carried out on paramedics who come here from outside the EU – meaning tests are carried out on those who come here from Australia – but there are no checks on those who come here from countries such as Poland.
Figures from NHS trusts show major shortages of paramedics across swathes of the country.
Three ambulance trusts, which between them cover Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, County Durham, Northumberland, and Tyne and Wear, are all reporting vacancy rates of around 25 per cent.
South East Coast Ambulance trust, which covers East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent, Surrey, North East Hampshire, Brighton and Hove has recruited 12 paramedics from Australia and Europe, and is seeking to recruit up to 40 more international workers in the next year.
North West Ambulance Service trust, which covers Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Merseyside, Cumbria and Lancashire, said it is considering international recruitment, but has yet to decide which countries to target.
South Central Ambulance Service trust, which covers Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire, has so far offered jobs to at least eight paramedics from Poland, and plans to return to the country next month in a bid to help plug a shortage of 220 paramedics and technicians. The trust is also considering enquiries from other eastern European countries, and Australia, and seeking to recruit ex-military staff, and to deploy existing army paramedics. A spokesman said the trust chose Poland because the qualifications, skills and experience are very similar to those in the UK.
London Ambulance Service sent staff to Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane, in September, as well as to Auckland in New Zealand, to carry out interviews and assessments of paramedics, who were paid relocation expenses. A spokesman said paramedics would undergo a short “conversion course” about NHS practices before they started work, and that a second trip to Australia is planned in March.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association said: “The scale of the shortages is really concerning, and it is extremely worrying that we are becoming reliant on staff from overseas when there are real risks of communication problems.”
“We are simply not training enough paramedics, nor enough nurses, and we need to tackle this urgently,” she said.
Across England, vacancy rates are now 9 per cent, meaning a shortage of almost 1,400 paramedics.
NHS board papers from across the country warn of a national shortage of paramedics and “challenging” attempts to fill posts.
Senior paramedics said the problem was exacerbated because staff who have trained here are emigrating to other countries, or being recruited to other jobs here, working for the 111 NHS phone line, or working as assessors for disability claims.
Anthony Marsh, chairman of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, and chief executive of West Midlands and East of England ambulance trusts said: “There are not enough paramedic training places at universities. I don’t think any service has recruited enough students to meet their needs.”
The NHS plans to train an extra 600 paramedics a year for the next two years, but these will not start working until 2016/17.
Strikes in hospitals and ambulance services over pay are due to start on Thursday, with hospital workers walking out from 9am to 9pm, while paramedics will strike from noon until midnight.
GPs and hospital staff are being drafted in to provide emergency cover, amid concerns about risks to patients, especially in London and the North West, where ambulance services are most heavily unionised.
Unions for NHS staff are demanding a one per cent pay rise, which would cost the NHS more than £450 million. GMB, the union for NHS and ambulance staff, said talks will continue but that it would only call off industrial action if they were offered a new deal.
Talks between Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, and unions are due to resume on Monday, but unions have warned they will not back down unless they receive a concrete pay offer.
Last week Mr Hunt pleaded with unions to call off the plans, which he said would “affect patient safety to an unacceptable level”.