A controversial British outsourcing company has admitted forcing disabled patients to share non-emergency ambulances throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
G4S insists that it is following NHS guidance, which says that two patients can be carried together in an ambulance if neither of them has COVID or is displaying any symptoms and as long as a distance of at least one metre can be maintained between the patients.
But there are questions over the safety of that NHS guidance.
Separate NHS guidance on social distancing makes it clear that, to stop the spread of coronavirus, “you should… try to stay at least two metres… away from anyone you do not live with (or anyone not in your support bubble)”.
One disabled patient, Rachel*, has described her regular trips to hospital for appointments with G4S’s Kent and Medway service as a “lottery” because she never knows if she will be forced to share her ambulance with another patient, and if that other person has asymptomatic coronavirus.
She said: “One metre is not safe. The guidance is two metres for good reason. If you are within distance of a cough hitting you, you are in danger.”
She said she was concerned that G4S was “mixing households within journeys, when people using patient transport are generally more vulnerable to viruses.
“Journeys should be single household only for maximum safety.”
Rachel said that some of the ambulances run by G4S as part of its non-emergency patients transport service (NEPTS) contracts do not have screens separating the driver from the patient area, while some vehicles do not have windows that can be opened to lessen the risk of contracting the virus.
She also said that, even when there are shields separating the driver from the patients, there are still unsealed areas around that shield.
Although drivers are told to wear gloves and masks when outside the vehicle, she said, they previously had to remove them when driving, although she said this is no longer happening.
Rachel, a wheelchair-user who has had to take numerous journeys to hospital with G4S during the pandemic, said the company’s policies were putting disabled people’s lives at risk, although she said her concerns had eased since the autumn.
On one trip last year, she was forced to share the passenger part of the vehicle with a powerchair-user, their carer and a third person.
One of the trio was exempt from having to wear a mask and was “a coughing splutterer”, she said.
She estimates there was spacing of no more than 40cm between them.
On another occasion, Rachel was forced again to share the passenger part of the vehicle with another service-user and insisted on having the windows open, only to be told by the driver: “I’ll have to ask her, she might not want them open, it might be too cold for her.”
Rachel said: “I volunteered her the options of cold or death, and she chose cold.”
G4S has contracts with a number of NHS trusts – it would not say this week how many – to provide non-emergency patient transport, including across Kent and Medway.
The company says on its website that it transports patients to and from hospital “safely, comfortably and on time” and that its vehicles “are clean and well equipped to maintain or improve quality of life whilst patients are in our care”.
A G4S spokesperson declined to say how often patients were asked to share ambulances.
He also declined to say if some ambulances have windows that cannot be opened, if there are unsealed areas around the division shields, and if patients are told in advance if their trip will be shared.
But he said in a statement: “Since the start of the pandemic, G4S Patient Transport Services has taken significant measures to ensure that we continue to provide a safe service.
“Our crews are tested for coronavirus twice a week and adhere to strict rules regarding the use of PPE [personal protective equipment] when in contact with passengers.
“We’ve installed screens approved by the NHS in the majority of our vehicles, and additional PPE requirements for crew members are in place in vehicles where screens are not available.
“We have specific ambulances designated for use with COVID patients only, and we never schedule COVID patients on journeys with non-COVID patients.
“Pre-screening of every passenger takes place prior to journeys to assess if they have COVID symptoms or any other special requirements.”
Rachel said that this pre-screening “consists of a call the day before to ask if you have a temperature, cough or loss of taste or smell”, which “is not a reliable indicator of whether or not somebody has asymptomatic COVID”.
The G4S spokesperson said: “While it is sometimes necessary for passengers to share ambulances with other passengers in accordance with NHS England guidance, we take every effort to ensure that social distancing is adhered to during our journeys wherever possible.
“While we have not been provided with sufficient details to look into the circumstances around this specific complaint, we regret any situation where a passenger is not completely satisfied with the service they’ve received.
“A well signposted feedback service is available to all our passengers that helps us to look into any concerns and learn from them.”
A spokesperson for NHS Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group said it had had “no indication that the Kent and Medway service run by G4S did not meet the national NHS guidelines” and that the information provided by Disability News Service (DNS) “does not have the necessary detail for the instances described to be properly investigated”.
G4S is one of the country’s most controversial and discredited outsourcing companies.
Separately this week, DNS is reporting how G4S security guards at a hotel being used as part of the government’s quarantine scheme for air passengers arriving in the UK repeatedly shouted at a disabled woman as she was taking her daily exercise (see separate story).
But its track record also includes claims of assault and racism at immigration detention centres, the failure to provide enough security staff for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a coroner’s verdict of “unlawful killing” at the hands of G4S staff after the death of Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga in 2010, and serious allegations concerning G4S staff at secure training centres for children.
*Not her real name
**For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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