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‘Ambulance handover a publicity stunt’

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Local ambulance drivers say that the new vehicles are just standing and gathering dust

New ambulances which were handed over on Monday are yet to be distributed throughout the Province. The ambulances still need to be fitted with medical equipment and need licences. This while the EMS services are in dire need of the vehicles. Picture: Soraya Crowie

THE “BIG handover” of 130 emergency medical services (EMS) vehicles for the Northern Cape is just a “publicity stunt”.

This is the sentiment of local ambulance drivers, who say that the new ambulances are just standing and gathering dust in the backyard of a house located next to the Health Ministry in Kimberley.

About 17 to 18 of the new ambulances, which were visibly without licence discs, could be seen parked inside the premises yesterday.

The ambulances form part of the 65 ambulances, 10 patient transport vehicles and 55 clinic outreach bakkies that were “handed over” by the Northern Cape MEC for Health, Maruping Lekwene, and Premier Zamani Saul earlier this week.

The vehicles are reportedly worth R70 million.

According to a local Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA (Hospersa) shop steward, Vergil Calvert, the ambulances are not equipped with the basic medical equipment that is required for an ambulance.

“These ambulances were launched and people were excited that they were getting resources to assist them. The premier said during the launch that these vehicles have been launched at just the right time, since we are fighting a pandemic and we are currently in the festive season. However, what is the use of the vehicles if we cannot use them,” said Calvert.

“In Kimberley, we currently only have two ambulances to help the people. We also have to assist the people of Ritchie as well. These are not enough ambulances to assist such a large number of people.

“People always give ambulance staff the blame when an ambulance is late. One of our staff members was almost burnt with boiled water by a community member after they were accused of not responding fast enough to an emergency.

“People are not aware of the challenges we face on the ground. Ambulance staff are constantly being assaulted by community members and accused of not doing their work. We are not lazy, but we do not have the resources to do our work effectively.

“We have to transport about six patients in one vehicle. Even pregnant women are forced to drive in the same vehicle as other patients. We once had an incident where a pregnant woman gave birth in the presence of other patients. We had no other option but to deliver the baby.

“Incidents such as that are taking away the dignity of patients as they are forced to endure uncomfortable situations in the presence of strangers.”

Calvert also pointed out that the shortage of staff is a major challenge that has not been addressed over the years.

“There is a need for EMS staff. We have been crying for more staff for more than four years, but these cries have fallen on deaf ears.

“It is very frustrating to work under these conditions because people blame us for gambling with their lives. We have been carrying on with the few hands we have.”

On Monday, Lekwene and Saul handed over 75 new emergency medical services (EMS) vehicles and 55 clinic outreach bakkies.

Lekwene said the dire need for emergency vehicles in the Province spurred the department to prioritise this challenge.

“We have experienced a great shortage of ambulances in all five districts in the Province. I have received several messages from community members about ambulances not showing up or about ambulances being late. We even engaged with emergency medical staff and they also complained about the shortage of ambulances. We are aware that the number of vehicles we are handing over are not sufficient, but it is a good start,” said Lekwene.

“We must ensure that our EMS services do not collapse. Access to emergency health services is a basic service our people in our communities deserve and need. We are pleased that we have these resources during this festive season and during a time when we are reaching a second wave of the coronavirus.”

Saul said the handover will also ensure that communities in the Province have access to health services.

“When we started this administration, we indicated that our priority will be health and education. With regards to health, we said our facilities must be adequately staffed, but it should also be easy for the people in the Province to access clinics and health centres as well as hospitals. We have been working hard to ensure that we have an adequate number of doctors and nurses in our hospitals. We have also ensured that poor people have access to these institutions. Access to these institutions is determined by the capacity, in terms of medical vehicles and staff we have available to assist our people. That is the reason we are continuously launching the roll-out of emergency vehicles and patient vehicles,” said Saul.

He added that new vehicles will also be handed over in the new year.

“In January, we will receive a further 10 patient buses and 10 ambulances. In total we will have 75 vehicles,” he said.

Saul urged EMS workers to prioritise the needs of the people and to ensure that everyone receives the assistance they require.

“Almost every day I would receive complaints from community members about ambulances not responding to their emergency. These new vehicles will shorten the response to emergencies. The timing of the handover is also coming at a time when we are faced with the pandemic and we are in the festive season. We all know what is happening on our roads and we need to ensure that we have the capacity to respond as quickly as possible to any emergency so that people do not perish while waiting for an ambulance,” Saul said.

He also urged health care workers to ensure that they observe Covid-19 regulations when assisting those in need.

“We are faced with a resurgence of Covid-19 infections. Emergency workers are part and parcel of the front-line staff and they must keep themselves, and their families, safe during this pandemic. We do not want to lose any front-line staff during this pandemic,” Saul said.