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5 Dec 2006 : Column 28WH—continued

which they are,

which they are. The letter goes on to say:

I have a further letter from the MHRA, the executive agency of the Department of Health.

Charlotte Atkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Fabricant: I will just quote from it, and then I will give way to the hon. Lady. The letter says:

Charlotte Atkins: The hon. Gentleman quoted from a Department of Health letter. After that quote, an additional paragraph mentions the importance of ensuring that

Is that not the problem that Geoff Catling and Robert Lake have picked up—the training of CFRs?

Michael Fabricant: That is indeed what they are talking about, and I shall address it shortly, but it too is an excuse and a lie, as I shall point out later. CFRs in other ambulance services with fewer controls than the Staffordshire ambulance service use those drugs. It is an excuse, and the hon. Lady and other Members of Parliament should not be befuddled by excuses. The drugs are used by other ambulance services, and they have the approval of the Department of Health. I shall come to that in more detail shortly, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has been a doughty defender of CFRs, for raising the issue.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Michael Fabricant: No, I will not. I want to move on, because I have quite a bit to talk about and other people want to speak. I shall give way to my hon. Friend later, because I know that he will have a chance to speak during the winding up.

Seven drugs have been withdrawn from CFRs: Atrovent, diazepam, Entonox—a gas—glyceryl trinitrate, midazolam, Pulmicort and Salbutamol. They are used to treat life-threatening asthma, prolonged and repeated fitting, severe pain, cardiac chest pain, childhood croup and severe pulmonary conditions. In
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each case, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency says that it is legal to provide the drugs, as they are administered orally, nasally or rectally and are therefore not covered by medicines legislation.

In fact, where the Medicines Act does restrict use of certain medicines—parenteral medicines, which are administered by injection—there is no bar to anyone using them in an emergency situation in order to save a life. Two such medicines, adrenaline and glucagon, are still being used by Staffordshire CFRs. There is no bar to CFRs using the drugs. Indeed, they are still being used by CFRs with less training in other ambulance services which have fewer protocols for keeping the drugs, including east midlands and Northumbria, where they are still being used to save lives, just as they could be used to save lives in Staffordshire. Who do the Staffordshire management think they are kidding?

In addition to the specific legal restrictions—this is the point raised by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands—trusts need to ensure that their clinical governance arrangements are sufficiently robust to ensure safe and effective practice. That includes appropriate logistics as well as internal regulation and audit procedures. However, ever since the CFR programme began, Staffordshire ambulance service has had measures in place to address that—measures more complex and robust than in other ambulance services where the drugs have not been withdrawn. Whenever a CFR administered a drug to a patient, that drug was replaced from the back-up ambulance under the same procedure that paramedics use. It is a simple one-for-one arrangement that worked perfectly well. The details of the drug—its name, amount, batch number and expiry date—were recorded on the patient report form that accompanies the patient to hospital, and the ambulance service permanently retained a carbon copy.

I understand that a more strict and cumbersome arrangement is being devised in Staffordshire, but I know from the CFRs themselves, as I am sure the hon. Lady does, that even though the present arrangement is being used quite appropriately and legally in other ambulance services, CFRs in Staffordshire alone are happy to accept the added burden of paperwork if it means that they can continue saving lives. Let us not forget that they are volunteers who have undergone eight months of training and that many of them are doctors or have medical backgrounds—as I keep saying, they have a greater depth of training than CFRs in other regions, all of whom are allowed to use the drugs—and let us be clear that there has not been a single improper incident with the drugs and that many lives have been saved as a result.

Charlotte Atkins: The hon. Gentleman mentioned that some of the CFRs are doctors. Is it not the case that a doctor would be able to administer all 13 of the drugs?

Michael Fabricant: Yes, but some of the CFRs are not doctors. They get to the scene first. Just as in other parts of the country, they were able to prescribe and give the drugs. They are not being allowed to do so now, and people will begin to die one by one in consequence. I repeat that there has not been a single
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improper incident involving the drugs during the past few years, and that many lives have been saved as a result.

I move to the question of equipment. As if taking such medicines from the first people on the scene was not bad enough, the new management of Staffordshire ambulance service have also withdrawn from all their emergency response teams, including regular ambulances, equipment proven to save lives in serious heart attack cases. When someone has a cardiac arrest, there are just a few minutes to save their life. Defibrillation does not always work, so cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which I have used, must be applied directly to the heart. I can tell you, Mr. Amess, that it is hard work. It can crack the sternum and break ribs, but compressing the heart manages to circulate some of the blood supply. That circulation is only 25 per cent. of normal circulation, which often is not enough.

ResQPOD is a device that artificially increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, thus getting more oxygen to the brain, heart muscle and other vital organs, and it increases the amount of oxygen that circulates under CPR by about 50 per cent. ResQPOD has been withdrawn, and again, our management friends, Mr. Lake and Mr. Catling, feature in this sad story. They cite safety reasons, but I have spoken personally to Dr. Keith Lurie, professor of internal and emergency medicine at the medical school at the university of Minnesota in the United States, and the reasons given for the decision taken in Staffordshire are spurious.

Let us be clear; we are talking about dead people, those whose hearts have stopped. ResQPOD is a life-saving device, and Lake and Catling—alone it would seem—are claiming that it is not. Yet it is used by other ambulance services in the United Kingdom—although, interestingly, not by the West Midlands ambulance service—and by ambulance services in the United States, whose legal system would soon see to it that it was quickly withdrawn from service if there were any doubts about its safety. It is also used in Canada, France, Germany and Scandinavia. I trust their judgment; I do not trust the medical judgment of Lake and Catling.

The future of the LUCAS unit is also in doubt. It is a mechanical device that provides chest compression during CPR and it effectively does the job of a paramedic by compressing the chest at a rate of 100 compressions per minute, which is very difficult to achieve or sustain. Anyone who has tried CPR will know how hard it is to sustain that rate for a minute or two, but the device does it automatically and indefinitely. It has not been withdrawn yet, and I hope that it will not be.

Each year, out of every 1 million people, about 1,000 suffer a cardiac arrest and will receive CPR. Fewer than 50 of those survive if manual techniques alone are used. If ResQPOD is used, the chances of a patient surviving a serious heart attack is doubled. If a LUCAS unit is used in combination with ResQPOD, and only if it is so used, the chances double again. Together the two devices keep blood flowing to and from the heart at 50 to 70 per cent. of the normal rate, which is much higher than the 20 per cent. figure achieved from the use of manual CPR alone. In
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Staffordshire, an average of 20 lives are saved; they will not be saved next year if the ban continues. That has all come about since plans for regional ambulance services were announced.

I have said from the outset that I want the best for the people of Staffordshire, the west midlands and the UK. I do not mind in principle if services become regional, or even national, as long as the service is, at the very least, as good as it is in Staffordshire. However, because Staffordshire has been consistently at the top of the performance tables for all measures of good service, such as response times and survival rates, it is the regional service that must improve—not the other way round. Lake and Catling say that response times are still tops, and for once I agree with them. That is great, but arriving swiftly at the scene is just part of the equation: without the vital drugs and equipment, paramedics, CFRs and ambulance crews can do nothing.

It is increasingly clear that the new management have an eye on the regional service, with the result that the people of Staffordshire are already beginning to suffer through the withdrawal of life-saving medicines and equipment. The morale of those who work so hard for the people of Staffordshire is already beginning to fall, through no fault of their own. I dread to think how many lives will be lost in Staffordshire when all the hard work they have put in to building a system that works simply evaporates because the regional service will not open its eyes to a common-sense approach. As I have said in this Chamber before, the Minister should be proud of what we have achieved in Staffordshire, and should want to repeat it elsewhere.

Before I close, I shall give the House some statistics and an example. Each day since 18 October, when Staffordshire ambulance service decided to restrict medicines, a CFR has been forced to wait helplessly with a patient, waiting for up to 45 minutes before a medicine that they could have administered on 17 October was administered. I shall read an extract from a message sent by “call sign 699”, who is a Brewood CFR group operator:

That drug could previously have been administered by CFRs and it has been unilaterally withdrawn by the Staffordshire ambulance service, even though it is in use by other CFRs in other parts of the country. The message continues:

That was sent by a community first responder called Ann.

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It can easily take an ambulance 30 minutes to reach some areas—longer in winter—and we should note that the air ambulance does not fly at night or in bad weather. It is telling that no one from the West Midlands strategic health authority or the West Midlands ambulance service has visited a Staffordshire CFR group to see how it operates or to see the nature of the terrain. CFRs and community paramedics get into remote areas and deliver life-saving support—the Minister should note that it is a success story. However, although they are still the first on the scene of an emergency, they are no longer able to help. In the worst cases, they will be forced to watch someone go into cardiac arrest before they can attempt to help, knowing that before vital medicines and equipment were removed by the Staffordshire ambulance service’s management, they could have prevented it from happening.

The merger or “partnership”, as it is called, between the Staffordshire and the West Midlands ambulance services is developing into one of our worst fears. No sensible explanation has been given as to why, in the build up to the merger, drugs and equipment still in use in other ambulance services in England and elsewhere were suddenly considered to be illegal or dangerous for use in Staffordshire. The action by Staffordshire ambulance service to withdraw CFR drugs and ResQPOD is down to a major clash of cultures and, as it is neither practicable nor permissible for an ambulance service to operate different standards in a region, it is easier—and, I guess, cheaper—to restrict the medicine and equipment that Staffordshire’s emergency medical services carry than it is to train its colleagues in the west midlands.

It is disheartening to note that, perhaps uniquely, by merging the two services and ignoring best practice there is a real risk that clinical care will be reduced and operating costs and deaths will go up. The question that I put to the Minster is this: if community first responders and paramedics cannot treat emergency patients with appropriate medicines and equipment, why is the ambulance service still dispatching them? If that is being done to meet response time targets, it is surely a despicable misuse of volunteers that cheats patients because, without the vital drugs that have been withdrawn, the CFRs can do little when they arrive.

I started the debate with a figure. People in Staffordshire are nearly five times more likely to survive a heart attack than the national average. The people of Staffordshire in such circumstances are now five times more likely to die. I urge the Minister to use all the power of his office to sort this mess out because he will have a much more serious debate on his hands as soon as the first life is lost that could have been saved. The clock starts ticking with that first unnecessary death. I, for one, do not want that debate to be necessary.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at midday. Four hon. Members wish to speak and I want to call all of them, so I hope that they will share the time out between themselves.

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11.30 am

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this important and timely debate.

Passions have been running high in Staffordshire ambulance service over the past few weeks, especially since 17 October, when the bombshell was dropped that the 13 drugs that were previously available to community first responders had to be restricted to just six. As acting chief executive Geoff Catling admitted, withdrawing those drugs was like cutting off one of their arms. However, his view was that he had no choice but to make that decision, to protect both the community first responders, and the trust and its legal position. He said that the issue was a legal minefield. The problem concerns the interpretation of the Medicines Act 1968 and who can be responsible for the safe and secure handling of medicines.

On the other side of the argument are people such as John Jones, team leader of the Biddulph Moor community first responders, who says that there is no legal reason why he and his fellow community first responders cannot be allowed to administer all the 13 drugs that they have used for the past seven years without any problems at all. I fully understand their frustration. Community first responders are not just gifted amateurs; they are professionally trained to ambulance technician standards.

The community first responder schemes in Staffordshire operate under strict criteria for recruitment, personal specification, training, assessment and hands-on exercises. The schemes are maintained and managed by a qualified paramedic, and all community first responders, like trust employees, have 24-hour access to a trust doctor via the telemedicine desk in ambulance control. That allows online advice and a second opinion if appropriate, which ensures patient safety.

Let us be clear about the vital role of community first responders. They are local volunteers, operating mostly in the more remote rural areas, which is important in my constituency. There, the ambulance response may be a little slower, so community first responders are nearly always the first on the scene. They do not know what they will find when they arrive, but they have the professionalism, the bravery and the commitment to assess the situation and to take control until the ambulance gets there.

Staffordshire ambulance service emergency response times are the best in the country, and have remained so, but in remote rural areas such as mine, the weather, terrain and isolation can cause a delayed response. That means that those who volunteer to become community first responders are life savers. There is no doubt at all about that. Restricting the drugs that they can use has angered, demotivated and undermined the community first responders.

The view of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is crucial. It has issued a statement—part of which the hon. Member for Lichfield read out—that says:

Community first responders clearly meet all three conditions. The MHRA continues:

However, as I indicated earlier, there is another paragraph, which is where the problem arises:

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