‘On the brink’: ambulance services in England face £14m rise in fuel bills

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Ambulance services across England face paying millions more in ballooning fuel costs this year, amid warnings that the NHS will face renewed pressures on pay, energy and construction costs in 2023.

Figures seen by the Observer reveal that each ambulance service in England expects to spend more than £1m on fuel over the next year as inflation continues to bite. Overall, the bill is set to rise by at least £14m in a single year.

NHS insiders warned that some of the costs would have to be met from existing budgets. There are also concerns over the uncertainty created by predicted pressures on pay, energy and promised new wards over the next year, despite the extra funding provided for the NHS in the autumn statement.

Nine of the 10 ambulance services in England released figures under the Freedom of Information Act, which reveal that their costs are projected to rise to £69m from £55m in the current financial year. The hardest hit is the Yorkshire ambulance service which is set to pay an extra £2.3m, with a total bill of £7.8m. The service with the highest total was the West Midlands, with a projected bill of £9.5m – a £1.8m increase. Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem health spokesperson who uncovered the ambulance fuel costs, warned that some ambulance services were already “on the brink”.

“Every ambulance service is being hit by a hugely inflated fuel bill, stretching vital funds even further,” she said. “The Conservative government is to blame: on their watch, fuel bills have skyrocketed. But the public shouldn’t have be saddled with the bill for their failure. Our ambulance service is in dire need of any kind of support it can get; reducing these soaring fuel bills by properly taxing the big oil and gas companies should be a priority.”

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View image in fullscreenJeremy Hunt, the chancellor, announced additional funding for the NHS in his autumn statement on 17 November. Photograph: Tayfun Salci/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

The West Midlands ambulance service has increased the efficiency of its fleet in an attempt to keep costs down. A spokesperson said: “All NHS organisations received additional funding from NHS England in 2022-23 to address non-pay inflation pressures, but the bulk of the increased cost has had to be found from internal savings.”

A North West ambulance spokesperson said an increase in incidents, the size of area it covers and rising fuel prices had contributed to the higher costs. However, they said the additional costs could be met from the existing NHS funding settlement.

The data reveals just one of the effects that inflation is expected to have on the health service in 2023. There are also concerns about the budget for rebuilding some of the hospital estate and promised new wings given significant inflation in construction costs. Annual construction sector inflation was running at 10% in September. Forecasts predict a significant difference in the rate of inflation used to calculate the health service’s budget, compared with the rate affecting the economy more generally.

According to the Health Foundation thinktank, the “GDP deflator” – the figure used to calculate inflation rates on government departments – will be 4.9%. However, the consumer prices index will be 10.1% – . A third measure, the consumer deflator, which comes in at 8.9%, is seen by some experts as the best measure to use when calculating the impact on the service.

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Stephen Rocks, an economist at the Health Foundation, said costs for the service were rising faster than anticipated. “The government has recognised this and provided additional funding at the autumn statement,” he said. “But while the NHS welcomed this as enough to meet its ‘key priorities’, the health service remains under tremendous pressure and other areas of investment are at risk.”

A government spokesperson said the autumn statement had provided up to £14.1bn in additional funding for the NHS and social care over the next two years. “We value the hard work of our ambulance service and have reduced their running costs through the £2.4bn fuel duty freeze, as well as £150m of additional funding for NHS England in 2022-23 to help with pressures such as the rising price of fuel,” they said.

“Hospitals are already benefiting from the energy bill relief scheme, which will hold down energy bills for all public sector organisations until March. More broadly, our plan for the economy will help to more than halve inflation next year, bearing down on the root cause of the pressures that the NHS faces.”

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