A leaked report reveals how South East Coast Ambulance Trust deliberately delayed up to 20,000 NHS 111 calls to give paramedics more time to reach the scene.

The ambulance trust admits that in the winter of 2014/15 it introduced a “process to deal with certain calls passed from 111 to the 999 service” during what it described as “an extremely busy period”.

This “process” has recently been investigated by NHS England, and the details of the leaked report reveal a major NHS scandal.

It describes a secret operation, created by chief executive Paul Sutton and overseen by at least four executives. Board non-executives, the medical director and local commissioners of services were all kept in the dark.

It involved automatically downgrading calls that came in via NHS 111, even those that were classed as ‘life-threatening’. Paramedics would then phone back, checking to see if an ambulance was truly necessary.

This gave paramedics an extra 10 minutes to reach the scene of life-threatening cases, and an extra 20 minutes for non-life-threatening cases.

Life-threatening cases are supposed to receive an ambulance response within eight minutes, regardless of whether they have come through the 999 or 111 service.

However, the scheme ensured targets were still being hit, because the patient was technically receiving a response within the eight minute time frame.

Because no one else was told of the operation, NHS 111 call handlers would confirm that an ambulance was on its way, being completely unaware that it was not.

Up to 20,000 patients experienced a delay because of the policy. As the scheme was not monitored, it is not known how many people were harmed as a result.

One NHS whistle-blower has suggested up to 25 people died because of the delays, including one 60 year old man who was placed in the queue, despite describing the typical signs of cardiac arrest.

The allegations are denied by the Trust, with a spokesman saying: “There has been some suggestion that this [policy] resulted in less serious patients being harmed. We should make it clear that our investigations to date have found no evidence to support this suggestion.”

Monitor, the organisation which regulates Foundation Trusts, has ordered a “detailed independent review”.

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