Games organisers accused of risking health of Londoners by banning ambulances without blue lights on from ‘Games lanes’
Sick and vulnerable NHS patients will be left stranded in ambulances in traffic jams while dignitaries and sponsors race past in a fleet of expensive cars on specially designated lanes during the Olympics, healthcare providers fear.
Games organisers have been accused of risking people’s health by banning the routine use by ambulances of the “Games lanes” introduced to ensure that VIPs can travel quickly to events. The decision to reject a request for access from NHS London, the capital’s strategic health authority, has led to a storm of anger. Medical Services, an independent business that transports patients for the health service, and whose clients include the hospitals closest to the Olympic stadium, says it fears that the ill, including those on dialysis, will be trapped in vehicles as London suffers unprecedented congestion, with traffic on key routes expected to slow to a crawl.
The Games lanes comprise 30 miles of road in central London on which only the “Olympic family” will be allowed to travel – athletes, officials and sponsors, including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. BMW has donated 4,000 3 and 5 series cars to be used during the Games. Following consultation with the NHS, ambulances will be allowed to use the lanes when they have their blue lights on, but critics say there are many urgent journeys that cannot justify the use of blue lights. They can only be employed in a genuine emergency and those entitled to use them generally require special training.
Leah Bevington, head of communication at Medical Services, expressed astonishment that even appeals for bus lanes to be opened up to ambulances and vehicles transporting patients had been rejected by Transport for London (TfL) and the London Olympic Organising Committee so that public transport was not held up at peak times. Bevington said: “This means that sick people, often elderly and frail, urgent blood supplies, oxygen, will all be made to wait in traffic with the rest of us. Congestion can be bad enough around London on a regular day so you can imagine that we are concerned that patients will be on a vehicle for much longer periods of time.” She added: “As much as the NHS and everyone else is trying to run business as usual, without some help it won’t happen.”
Medical Services is also concerned about a potential increase in cardiac arrests and breathing difficulties and about the lack of toilet facilities on its vehicles. “[TfL] are generally quite sympathetic and understand that we have patients we need to look after. But their hands are very much tied because they won’t give an exemption to anybody,” said Bevington. “But I really, really can’t see how elderly sick people who live here aren’t as important. They should be at the top of the list. From a healthcare side of things I think it is crazy that they are not offering an exemption.”
Sara Gorton, senior national officer for health at the medical union Unison, said: “The Olympic organisers need to get their priorities straight. That means making sure that patients needing care, whether that’s kidney dialysis or cancer treatment, do not get stuck in long traffic queues, especially in the heat of summer. Now is the time to sit down and plan the best way to ensure the Olympics are a benefit to all Londoners, not just a few.”
Imperial College healthcare trust, whose four London hospitals will be particularly affected by the Olympics, submitted an appeal to use the 100 miles of the Olympic Route Network, the arterial roads which will service the Games. TfL responded: “There is significant demand from the police, utilities and others to use the Games lanes for critical operational reasons which fall short of actual emergencies. To give blanket approval to all these would undermine the performance of the whole Olympic Route Network and Paralympic Route Network and in particular jeopardise the journey time commitments in the host city contract.”
There are also fears that mobile phones crucial to the work of healthcare workers will suffer because of an increase in usage in east London. Routine deliveries of blood and oxygen to hospitals are being moved to the night in order to avoid congestion.
A report from NHS Blood and Transport warns of an impact on its ability to transport potential organ donors to hospitals.
Catherine West, who chairs the London councils’ transport and environment committee, commented: “We are concerned that allowing sponsors to use the Games lanes will cause unnecessary disruption to Londoners.”
NHS London said: “We have been working closely with other key NHS suppliers to add flexibility to the system, moving deliveries and working with hospitals to try to reduce demand.”
The organisers emphasised that the Games lanes “will only be in place on a third of the network. These will only be in place on the busiest parts of the ORN, and where there is at least a dual carriageway to ensure the Games lane is alongside a lane for general traffic.”