Living in one of the remotest communities in England, the residents of Alston Moor in Cumbria count themselves lucky to be surrounded by the breathtaking peaks of the Pennines.
But living somewhere so beautiful comes with downsides – there are just a couple of pubs, it is many miles to the nearest supermarket and a takeaway delivery is out of the question.
And now the community of 2,500 people is at risk of losing what it believes is vital to its health and survival – its local ambulance service. Alston Moor currently has four emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who live locally and operate an ambulance serving the 80-square-mile area.
But if North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) proposals go ahead, the EMTs will be replaced by a community first responder – a trained member of the public rather than a professional – who can reach an emergency quickly to help patients until an ambulance arrives from elsewhere in the county.
More than 200 people silently protested against the plans outside a meeting between the parish council and NWAS last week. District councillor and local GP Michael Hanley said the removal of the service could cost lives. “Never have we had a situation where we haven’t had a local ambulance.If we rely on Penrith or Carlisle, it can take two to three hours for an ambulance to come, and the community first responders are not trained to the same level at all as the EMTs.
“[Doctors] talk about the ‘golden hour’ – the time between when the person rings on the phone to getting them to hospital – so if there’s something very dire like a severe heart attack or a severe accident, that first hour is very, very important. If it takes two-and-a-half to three hours for an ambulance to get here, it’s possible some people will die,” he said.
For Alice Bondi, who has lived in the area for nearly 30 years, it is another example of the difficulties of living in this remote community. She said: “If you live here, you get used to the fact that anything you have is going to be threatened with being taken away because we’re a small community.
“We’re part of Cumbria, but we’re on the wrong side of the Pennine escarpment and we don’t fit very easily so they find us quite a nuisance.”
It is not only locals who would be affected by the shutting of the service, she said. “There are a lot of visitors, not only in the summer but in the winter.”
People visit from all over the UK for the area’s dark skies, which are free from light pollution, and for walking, cycling and skiing.
Alston Moor is also a favourite of motorcyclists, who travel to the area because of its dramatic hairpin bends, and who are some of the more frequent users of the local ambulance. Bondi said: “So all of this affects not only our local population, but a very very large number of others.”
Neil Hudson, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, said he was “extremely saddened” to hear of the plans and that he supported local campaigners fighting to keep it.“I very much understand the challenges that Alston faces due to how rural it is, and how absolutely crucial the local ambulance is in order to protect and support the community.
“I have met with the local NHS to discuss this and I am strongly encouraging the NHS and NWAS to pause any action on their suggested change until they have been able to discuss future possible options with the community and NWAS,” he said.
NWAS head of service for Cumbria and Lancashire, Gene Quinn, said: “NWAS recognises the commitment of the local community team in Alston, however, due to national changes regarding the skill level and training required for EMTs and to maintain a safe and sustainable service, the operating model for the Alston Moor area is under review.
“We know the area is challenging in terms of accessibility, which is why we have considered a range of options, and are considering what we can put in place to maintain safer and more sustainable service.”