Emergency medical services in the United Kingdom provide emergency care to people with acute illness or injury and are predominantly provided free at the point of use by the four National Health Services of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Emergency care including ambulance and emergency department treatment is free to everyone, regardless of immigration or visitor status.
The NHS commissions most emergency medical services through the 14 NHS organisations with ambulance responsibility across the UK (11 in England, 1 each in the other three countries).
In addition to ambulance services provided by NHS organisations, there are also some private and volunteer emergency medical services arrangements in place in the UK, the use of private or volunteer ambulances at public events or large private sites, and as part of community provision of services such as community first responders.
Air ambulance services in the UK are not part of the NHS and are funded through charitable donations. Paramedics are usually seconded from a local NHS ambulance service, with the exception of Great North Air Ambulance Service who employ their own paramedics. Doctors are provided by their home hospital and spend no more than 40% of their time with an air ambulance service.
Public ambulance services across the UK are required by law to respond to four types of requests for care, which are:
Ambulance trusts and services may also undertake non-urgent patient transport services on a commercial arrangement with their local hospital trusts or health boards, or in some cases on directly funded government contracts, although these contracts are increasingly fulfilled by private and voluntary providers.
The National Health Service Act 1946 gave county and borough councils a statutory responsibility to provide an emergency ambulance service, although they could contract a voluntary ambulance service to provide this, with many contracting the British Red Cross, St John Ambulance or another local provider. The last St John Division, (the original designation of a local unit, now called 'branches'), to be so contracted is reputed to have been at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, where the two-bay ambulance garage can still be seen at the branch headquarters. The Regional Ambulance Officers’ Committee reported in 1979 that “There was considerable local variation in the quality of the service provided, particularly in relation to vehicles, staff and equipment. Most Services were administered by Local Authorities through their Medical Officer of Health and his Ambulance Officer, a few were under the aegis of the Fire Service, whilst others relied upon agency methods for the provision of part or all of their services.”
The 142 existing ambulance services were transferred by the National Health Service Reorganisation Act 1973 from local authority to central government control in 1974, and consolidated into 53 services under regional or area health authorities.
This led to the formation of predominantly county based ambulance services, which gradually merged up and changed responsibilities until 2006, when there were 31 NHS ambulance trusts in England.
The June 2005 report "Taking healthcare to the Patient", authored by Peter Bradley, Chief Executive of the London Ambulance Service, for the Department of Health led to the merging of the 31 trusts into 13 organisations in England, plus one organisation each in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Following further changes as part of the NHS foundation trust pathway, this has further reduced to 10 ambulance service trusts in England, plus the Isle of Wight which has its own provision.
Following the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, commissioning of the ambulance services in each area passed from central government control into the hands of regional clinical commissioning groups.
The commissioners in each region are responsible for contracting with a suitable organisation to provide ambulance services within their geographical territory. The primary provider for each area is currently held by a public NHS body, of which there are 11 in England, and 1 each in the other three countries.
In England there are now ten NHS ambulance trusts, as well as an ambulance service on the Isle of Wight, run directly by Isle of Wight NHS Trust, with boundaries generally following those of the former regional government offices. The ten trusts are:
The English ambulance trusts are represented by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives (AACE), with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish providers all associate members. On the 14 November 2018 West Midlands Ambulance Service became the UK's first university-ambulance trust.
The service was operated before reorganisation in 1974 by the St Andrews’ Ambulance Association under contract to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Scottish Ambulance Service is a Special Health Board that provides ambulance services throughout whole of Scotland, on behalf of the Health and Social Care Directorates of the Scottish Government.
Due to the remote nature of many areas of Scotland compared to the other Home Nations, the Scottish Ambulance Service has Britain's only publicly funded air ambulance service, with two Airbus Helicopters H145 Helicopters and two Beechcraft B200C King Air fixed-wing aircraft. There is also a partnership to provide the Emergency Medical Retrieval Service which gives rapid access to the skills of a consultant in emergency or intensive care medicine using Scottish Ambulance Service road and air assets.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) was established in 1995 by order in council, and serves the whole of Northern Ireland. To date universities in Northern Ireland do not facilitate Paramedic Science (BSc) degree meaning members must complete their degree either in England, Wales or Scotland.
The Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust (Welsh: Ymddiriedolaeth GIG Gwasanaethau Ambiwlans Cymru) was established on 1 April 1998, and has 2,500 staff providing ambulance and related services to the 2.9 million residents of Wales.
The ambulance services across England have been increasingly busy, with a significant increase in calls in the last two decades, as shown in the table below:
Calls where a Category A ambulance arrived at the scene rose from 6,856 per day in 2011–12 to 8,564 per day in 2014–15.
There is a large market for private and voluntary ambulance services, with the sector being worth £800m to the UK economy in 2012. Since April 2011, all ambulance providers operating in England have been required by law to be registered with the Care Quality Commission, under the same inspection regime as NHS services, and there are currently around 250 credentialled providers.
The primary activities of the private and voluntary services include:
All providers, including NHS, private, and voluntary can bid for many of the available contracts for provision of ambulance services, and private ambulance services now undertake over half of hospital transfers. This places the voluntary providers in direct competition with private services, although the private sector has been growing at the expense of the voluntary services over time.
There is a duty on Category 1 responders (including the NHS) to make appropriate arrangements for major incidents, and as such private and voluntary ambulance services are generally included as part of local planning for the provision of ambulance services during major incidents, such as mass casualty events (including 7 July 2005 London bombings), adverse weather, or severe staff shortage.
Private ambulance services are common in the UK, with over 200 providers, and their use under contract to the NHS to answer 999 calls has been growing year on year, with every NHS ambulance trust using private providers in each year from 2011–2014, and contracted providers answering three quarters of a million 999 calls in that three-year period. Expenditure on private ambulances in England increased from £37m in 2011–12 to £67.5m in 2013/4, rising in London from £796,000 to more than £8.8m. In 2014–15, these 10 ambulance services spent £57.6 million on 333,329 callouts of private or voluntary services – an increase of 156% since 2010–11. This use of private contractors for frontline services has been politically controversial, although 56% of the British public believe that greater private sector involvement will help maintain or improve standards in the NHS.
In 2013, the Care Quality Commission found 97% of private ambulance services to be providing good care. These private, registered services are represented by the Independent Ambulance Association. In 2017 the Commission warned all independent ambulance providers that during its inspections it had found “problems with the safety” of the care offered. 70 independent ambulance providers had been inspected and improvement notices had been issued to 25 out of 39 whose reports had been published. Plymouth Central Ambulance Service and Intrim Medical and Rescue Services were closed down after very poor practice was found.
There are also a number of unregistered services operating, who do not provide ambulance transport, but only provide response on an event site. These firms are not regulated, and are not subject to the same checks as the registered providers, although they may operate similar vehicles, and offer near identical services.
There are a number of voluntary ambulance providers, sometimes known as Voluntary Aid Services or Voluntary Aid Societies (VAS), with the main ones being the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance. The history of the voluntary ambulance services pre-dates any government organised service, and includes service in both World Wars.
As they are in direct competition for work with the private ambulance providers, the voluntary providers do operate with some paid ambulance staff to fulfil their contracts.
Voluntary organisations have also provided cover for the public when unionised NHS ambulance trust staff have taken industrial action.
There are a number of smaller voluntary ambulance organisations, fulfilling specific purposes, such as Hatzola who provide emergency medical services to the orthodox Jewish community in some cities.  These have however run into difficulties due to use of vehicles not legally recognised as ambulances.
The British Association for Immediate Care (BASICS) has numerous medical staff (including doctors, nurses and paramedics) who volunteer their time to respond to serious medical emergencies. (see below: Supporting services)
All UK emergency air ambulances are funded by charitable organisations, with medical staff usually seconded from the local NHS trust. The only exception is Scotland, where the Scottish Ambulance Service provides funding for 2 helicopters and 2 fixed wing aircraft. There is an additional helicopter, Scotland's Charity Air Ambulance, which is funded by charitable donations only.
All emergency medical services in the UK are subject to a range of legal and regulatory requirements, and in many cases are also monitored for performance. This framework is largely statutory in nature, being mandated by government through a range of primary and secondary legislation.
In England all ambulance services, as well as some medical response organisations like BASICS, are regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) under the provisions of the Health and Social Care Act 2008 and subsequent Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2010.
This requires all providers to register, to meet certain standards of quality, and to submit to inspection of those standards. Organisations not meeting the standards can be sanctioned, or have their registration removed, preventing them from offering any medical services.
The CQC replaced the previous regulator of England's NHS ambulance services, the Healthcare Commission, with its remit expanded to include all private and voluntary providers. Independent ambulance services have only been subject to formal regulation since 2011.
In addition to regulation by the Care Quality Commission on matters of service provision, providers of NHS services are also subject to regulation by either Monitor (for NHS foundation trusts or private providers) or the NHS Trust Development Authority (for NHS services who are not yet foundation trusts) for economic and financial matters.
The performance of every NHS ambulance provider is measured and benchmarked by the government. Commonly called 'ORCON', after the consultancy used to formulate them, the New Ambulance Performance Standards (NAPS) were developed in the 1990s, and merged into the Clinical Quality Indicators used subsequently. New targets were established in July 2017. See NHS ambulance services.
The benchmarked targets include:
Every ambulance provider is responsible to the CQC for compliance with best practice. Best practice guidance is published by the Joint Royal Colleges Ambulance Liaison Committee (JRCALC), and most providers follow the majority of this issued guidance.
There are a range of staff grades who work in emergency medical services in the UK. The majority of staff fall into four main categories (in ascending skill order):
In 2014/5 Ambulance Trusts were forced to look overseas to fill vacancies for paramedics. Only one was recruited from outside the UK in 2013-4 but 183 had been recruited since April 2014. Of these 175 were recruited by the London Ambulance Service from Australia. Across England, ambulance services reported that 1,382 of 15,887 posts were vacant – a rate of 9%.
Other roles within the NHS Ambulance Services include Ambulance Nurse (presently only employed by South Central Ambulance Service and identical in role to Paramedic, allowing interchangeability), Emergency Care Practitioner and similar Specialist Paramedic/Nurse roles with a focus on admission avoidance, and a broad range of support staff.
The British Association for Immediate Care coordinates voluntary schemes, and individual medical and allied health professionals, providing immediate care throughout the UK. BASICS doctors, nurses or paramedics may assist NHS paramedics at the scenes of serious accidents or be on-hand at major sporting events. All professionals volunteer their time, but doctors must have undergone additional training to support their working-environment.
Across the British Isles, a network of volunteer Blood Bikes charity groups provide motorcycle courier services for blood, tissue and organs which require transport to, or between, hospitals. Some are equipped with blue lights and sirens which can be used when transporting urgent blood or human tissue for transplant. Groups are largely independent, and operate in collaboration with their local healthcare providers. Many are represented through the Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes (NABB).
Volunteer community first responders (CFRs) are now common place resources for NHS Ambulance Service. CFRs are members of the public who have received training to answer ambulance 999 calls, and respond immediately within their local area, during their own time. The schemes originated to provide defibrillation in rural and remote areas, where ambulances could not quickly respond, although they are now present in both rural and urban areas.
CFRs are often operated by a local group, in partnership with the regional NHS ambulance trust, and carry a defibrillator and oxygen, along with other equipment as decided by the clinical governance arrangements. Some schemes have their own vehicles and actively fundraise to support their schemes.
In more rural areas where ambulance responses can take longer, fire personnel have been trained in basic first aid and pain management. They are trained in CPR, use of an AED, oxygen and entonox. They normally take a call from the ambulance Emergency Operations Centre and respond in a car fitted with blue lights, sirens and ambulance / fire service livery. This service is normally staffed by retained firefighters.