This article was published on Open Democracy.
Sat in the waiting room of Cheltenham Hospital with my Dad I started to google ‘Arriva NHS patient transport’. I had already read all that Hello magazine had to offer, what else was I to do?
And so, I read to fill the time. I read about the company that many local NHS Trusts have contracted to provide patient transport. I read with bemusement about their commitments “to the highest quality of care” and about how patients “inspire” them “to achieve excellence” and laughed to myself about how this failed to tally with my experience. I also started to read alarming numbers of patient testimonies describing being let down by them. About how the most vulnerable were being left for hours with no adequate care.
That morning I had sat by myself for hours as my Dad failed to show up for his appointment. He was coming from Cirencester, less than half an hour’s drive away, but finally arrived close to 2 hours late. They had picked him up 15 minutes after his appointment time and then proceeded to pick other patients up on the way meandering through Cotswold villages.
In that time, I rescheduled his appointment, twice. The receptionist was wonderfully understanding and yet deeply scathing about Arriva. She gave me their direct number saying that the dispatch office of Arriva no longer listened to her. “It shouldn’t but it happens all the time, where we can we will always try and fit people in. Often, I end up having to book patients taxis, it’s not right that people should have to wait around like this” she said.
She was apologetic, nice, but in her mind, unable to help or affect the system that was failing patients.
After the appointment was over Arriva informed me that they were, once again, running late. I rang them directly. They apologised over the phone to me and said that there would be an hour delay in getting my Dad picked up. This was at 12:15, about the time I had originally agreed to take over looking after my 5-month-old baby, and about 1 hour after my 2-hour parking ticket had run out.
What happened next was bordering on the farcical. To be exact:
- I rang at 12:15 to be told they would be there by 1:15.
- I rang at 1:30 to be told they would be there by 2:00
- I rang at 2:15 to be told they would be there by 2:30
- I rang at 2:45 to be told they would be there by 3:00
- I rang at 3:10 and they arrived a few minutes later.
When they did arrive, they apologised for being late by saying “we weren’t sure which department you were in”. I didn’t quite have the emotional energy to respond. I had arrived that morning at 10:30 to support my Dad through a 5-minute routine appointment. I was leaving close to 5 hours later.
Sadly, though this seems far from unusual. As one nurse who came out to see us still waiting retorted, “why am I not surprised to see you still here?”. My cursory google search gave dozens of comparable stories. 67-year old Brian Cropton from Stonehouse commented that “it’s just getting worse and worse” after he found himself regularly let down by them being left for hours and on occasion completely abandoned.
This chimes not only with the experience of the NHS staff who I spoke to, but also one of the official records. Last year in July members of Gloucestershire County Council’s Health and Care Overview and Scrutiny Committee told Arriva its performance was not good enough. One local Cllr commented that “Arriva have patently failed in a number of areas and it simply isn’t good enough” and that “[The] report is full of excuses”.
This came a year after an official warning was issued in late 2015 for “consistent failure to achieve a number of required Key Performance Indicator standards”.
I write this now not just because my own experience was awful but because it fits into a wider pattern – not once since Arriva Transport Ltd took the Gloucestershire NHS contract have they hit their own target of 95% of patients being dropped off between 45 minutes before and 15 minutes after their appointments. Pause on this point for a minute. Even if they had hit their targets, 1 in 20 patients would not be dropped off within an hour slot of their appointments. Can you imagine the logistical and financial impact this is having?
With one year left on their contract, I wonder if anything will change. Will it just be renewed? Is the NHS in a financial state to pay for better services? Is there any reason not to bring the service back in-house?
I don’t know. What I do know though is that the receptionist I spoke to told me about an elderly man who cried in her waiting room because he just wanted to get back to his bed and I know that is not OK.