Some people who need an ambulance may soon have to wait longer for it to arrive even if they are classed as a serious case under new proposals.
In a letter seen by Sky News, the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives suggests the target time to get to patients suffering a range of “serious but not the most life-threatening” problems, including strokes and seizures, could be increased to 19 minutes.
The current target for an emergency vehicle to reach people in life-threatening situations is eight minutes.
According to the memo, NHS England says there will be no changes to response times where patients have “immediately life threatening” conditions such as cardiac arrest, choking and major bleeding – known as Red 1 calls.
In these instances, a “fast response” car is often sent ahead of a fully-crewed ambulance to meet the time limit.
For serious cases like stroke and fits – Red 2 calls – there will be an extra three minutes added on to the response time.
But a proportion of Red 2s will have the eight minute target scrapped in favour of a 19 minute one for a full ambulance crew to be sent on its own.
Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “This has all the hallmarks of a panic move and suggests Jeremy Hunt’s only solution to the A&E crisis is to give up and move the goalposts.
“Rather than getting ambulance response times back up to established standards, it looks like he is running up the white flag. The situation in the NHS is now serious and Jeremy Hunt is failing to provide the leadership it desperately needs.
“While there may be a case for reviewing these rules, this is not the way to do it. It is nothing short of dangerous to make a snap decision at the start of the most difficult winter in the NHS for years.
“Hunt’s decision risks leaving thousands of seriously ill people waiting longer for ambulances this winter. The Health Secretary needs to provide urgent reassurance that this change can be safely made and won’t put lives at risks.”
But a Department of Health spokesman insisted: “No decisions have been made, and the Secretary of State would only agree to proposed changes that improve response times for urgent cases.”
He added: “We have given ambulances an extra £50m this winter to ensure the service remains sustainable and the Secretary of State agreed that NHS England should investigate a proposal from the ambulance services themselves to see whether the service they offer the public could be improved.”