LONE paramedics are still responding to emergencies in the Highlands NINE years after Nicola Sturgeon vowed to end the practice.
Figures obtained by the Inverness Courier reveal that a paramedic working on their own attended 31 999 calls in the Inverness area in the last 12 months. The figures also show another five examples in Nairn.
The news comes nine years after the then Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon – now the First Minister – pledged to eliminate the practice.
The Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) insisted the statistics needed to be seen within the wider context of nearly 7000 incidents over this period in the Inverness area – meaning fewer than one per cent of these were single-crewed.
But Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said sending out a lone paramedic limited the response and put the responder under unacceptable pressure and at risk.
The SAS said 18 of the 31 call outs were due to short notice absence, one was down to a paramedic having a medical appointment and nine were due to sickness absence – notified 24 hours in advance.
The other three were due to a paramedic having time off because their previous shift had overrun and they had to take that time off their next shift in order to ensure that they had 11 hours of rest before starting their next shift.
All occurrences of single-crewing in Nairn were associated with short notice absence.
An SAS spokeswoman said: "Ambulances are not routinely single-crewed other than in exceptional circumstances, such as unplanned staff absences, but when this does happen, they are tasked appropriately and backed up as necessary to ensure patient and staff safety."
In response to changing demands in the area, the service said it had introduced 23 additional posts, including two paramedics, nine specialist paramedics and 12 relief staff.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Patients with immediately life-threatening conditions, such as cardiac arrest, are prioritised and receive the fastest response with latest figures for Inverness showing that we reached these patients on average within 6.37 minutes.
"Ambulances are not routinely single-crewed other than in exceptional circumstances, such as unplanned staff absences, but when this does happen, they are tasked appropriately and backed up as necessary to ensure patient and staff safety."
Mr Mountain said: "No-one wants to see ambulances deployed with single crews, it limits what can be achieved and could potentially put ambulance staff at risk."
But he said he believed the SAS was doing all it could to avoid those situations, adding: "I am sure we all would rather see it [the ambulance] go out and for treatment to be offered rather than the call go unanswered."
Inverness Millburn councillor Ian Brown, who is also the branch chairman of NHS Highland Unite union, said in an ideal world two paramedics would be the preferable option when attending a call out.
"When they are doing the rotas, they would be planning for two but if someone is ill you cannot make them come into work," he said. "If I was a patient I would rather see one paramedic than none. They are still saving lives. They are all excellent professionals."
Meanwhile, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has accused the SAS of fudging the true number of ambulances available for A&E responses.
She says the ambulance numbers contradict those given by the GMB union and that she has been "confused and confounded" by a Freedom of Information reply from ambulance chiefs which she says shows more A&E vehicles at stations than are actually in operation.
An SAS spokeswoman said: "We supplied direct answers to the questions we were asked through the Freedom of Information request and the data issued in response to each question was correct."