At the beginning of September, I visited the Crawley headquarters of South East Coast Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SECAmb). SECAmb is one of 10 ambulance trusts in England, covering an expansive area across Brighton & Hove, East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent, Surrey and northeast Hampshire. During my visit we heard about the range of services SECAmb provides, the dedication and expertise of more than 4,000 staff working across 110 sites, as well as the challenges facing ambulance trusts working under sustained operational pressures.
On arrival, we were greeted by trust chair David Astley and chief executive Simon Weldon. Simon shared reflections on his six months in post. High on his priority list is to make a positive impact on culture across the service. As set out in our recent report, the ambulance sector faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to improving staff wellbeing and inclusion, due to the scale of the areas covered, and a disparate workforce working variable shift patterns across a large geography. This is a real priority for the trust; it was great to hear about the innovative ways the trust’s found to change how people feel about working for them, giving meaningful autonomy in roles, and enabling senior leaders to support and empower staff. I was also encouraged by how much of this is considered cross-sector.
We also discussed the challenges ambulance trusts are likely to face in meeting key targets set by the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry. This requires significant resource and capacity, made more acute by the strain placed on ambulance trusts from unprecedented levels of demand and sustained operational and financial pressures.
A highlight of the visit was a tour around the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), a buzzing and important space, staffed by call handlers, clinicians and dispatchers. We met with EOC colleagues, saw how they respond to 999 calls, undertake clinical triage assessments and dispatch ambulances across the region. As most calls received are from people with chronic illnesses or frailty, SECAmb has developed an approach that sees regional NHS Urgent Community Response (UCR) teams access its Computer Aided Dispatch system. This integrated approach allows UCR teams to provide urgent care to people in their homes, helping to avoid preventable hospital admissions and enabling people to stay independent at home for longer.
In the 111 centre, we watched health advisors and clinical advisors provide health advice and heard about initiatives and solutions in place to support flexible working and opportunities for career progression.
It was fantastic to hear about the opening of a new multi-purpose ambulance and contact centre in Medway, the first in the country to bring together a ‘Make Ready Centre’, where ambulances are prepared, the trust’s east EOC and NHS 111 contact centre. As we saw in Crawley, integrating 999 and 111 services is key to SECAmb’s aim to deliver more joined-up integrated care and increase efficiencies.
My visit to SECAmb highlighted the commitment of staff dealing with an incredible range of calls and challenges on a day-to-day basis, acting quickly and supporting people in moments of uncertainty.
I want to put on record my sincere thanks to David Astley, for his magnificent 50 years of service to the NHS; he plans to step down as chair in May 2024. David chaired the trust during a challenging period and his breadth of experience, insight and strong NHS values ensured it progressed and improved over the course of his stewardship. David has been a great supporter of NHS Providers and is a valued member of our board.