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The stars of Ambulance are heroes, but heroism isn’t enough to save the NHS

It’s right to celebrate the work of the paramedics and those hard-pressed back-up staff in the BBC series. It would be better to fund them properly

here’s a part of me that wants to be cynical about the BBC’s new series of Ambulance. After all, the Beeb put on its flashing blue light to do all this last year with the first series, which dealt with the London ambulance service, and once you’ve seen one cardiac arrest, you’ve probably seen them all. More to the point, we have endless medical shows, both fictional and real life (Casualty, Doctors, Hospital24 Hours in A&E), suggesting a deep fascination with health and medicine stretching all the way back to Emergency – Ward 10 and Dr Finlay’s Casebook in the 1950s and 60s. Yet this national obsession, alongside polls that show the NHS to be the UK’s second best-loved institution after The Great British Bake Off, never seems to translate into policy.

The NHS, which next year celebrates its 70th anniversary, remains underfunded; primary care is a mess, and the UK continues to lag behind comparable European countries in health provision. How many TV programmes about heroic paramedics do we need before we realise that heroism isn’t always enough? What message are we being given here – that all is well because ambulance crews will deal with whatever is thrown at them (and, believe me, they will), or that the service itself is at breaking point and needs some urgent political CPR? Trauma as entertainment only gets you so far.

The new series follows ambulance crews in the West Midlands, but the issues are similar to those in London: too many 999 calls; too few ambulances; overstretched call centres – these really are the staff at the sharp end, and their job is in many ways tougher than that of the teams on the road; paramedics who have to work overtime to bump their money up; the many calls relating to drink and drugs that are less medical emergencies than deep-seated societal problems – too often paramedics have to operate as social workers. Some of these issues come through in Ambulance, but inevitably they get submerged in the life-and-death dramas. Resource allocation and organisational planning are less compelling TV, but ultimately that’s what makes the health service tick.

But enough moans. In the end, you do have to put the cynicism aside and celebrate the work of the paramedics and those hard-pressed back-up staff who have to deal with often incoherent callers and decide who is most at risk of dying. Last September, when the first series was broadcast, I spent an eye-opening day with a London ambulance crew. It was both exhausting and exhilarating: there were dull patches – all the form-filling the paramedics had to do after each incident – and yet it was impossible to be bored, because you just didn’t know what would be coming next. A message would flash up on the ambulance console telling you how serious the problem was and where to go, and you’d be off, siren screaming.

What was amazing was how quickly the crews could go into operational mode. One minute a paramedic would be texting his girlfriend, or we’d be talking about music; the next they’d be completely focused on the crisis they had to deal with. The first incident we were called to was a student who had killed himself – a year later I still get the odd flashback to the horrible yet strangely peaceful scene we had to attend. For the crews, such traumatic incidents are daily occurrences, though a suicide was sufficiently rare for the ambulance service to send along a senior paramedic to make sure they were able to cope emotionally.

The range of challenges the crew had to deal with in the course of just one day – the suicide, a cardiac arrest, a man with dementia whose family could no longer cope, a woman with no obvious symptoms of ill health who was convinced she was in need of urgent attention and insisted on being hospitalised – was remarkably varied. Don’t think these fly-on-the-wall programmes give you only the highlights of the paramedic’s life; from my brief experience they are extremely accurate and representative of an average day. There is no shortage of material.

Some viewers found the section in episode one of the new series dealing with a mother giving birth at home, with only paramedics in attendance, uncomfortable viewing. “Paramedics deserve more recognition,” tweeted one. “Such inspiring people and working under extreme pressure. Makes me so proud of the NHS.” Many others agreed. Job done, the West Midlands ambulance service will think: plenty of positive PR for their long-suffering staff. But the real payoff for all this television attention would be better pay, shorter hours and a more rational approach to healthcare provision in the UK. Fine words – and tweets – are not enough. We should aim to build a health service that is so boringly efficient that producers will have to start looking elsewhere for drama.

 Ambulance airs on BBC1 on Thursday 31 August at 9pm

 Stephen Moss is a Guardian feature writer

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