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I congratulate Sandra Gidley on securing the debate. I note that she has visited the ambulances, as have many other hon. Members present. I sometimes wonder whether ambulances are the most visited part of the national health service. That is a tribute to them. We all engage in their services considerably. I am aware of the hon. Lady's interest in the NHS ambulance service and this is a timely debate on ambulances, not just in Hampshire, but across the country.
Hampshire Ambulance Service NHS trust provides services for the residents of three health authorities that cover the Hampshire area: North and Mid Hampshire, Southampton and South West Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and South East Hampshire. The trust covers an area of some 1,400 square miles and provides emergency and non-emergency services for around 1.5 million people. In addition to the urban and congested areas of Portsmouth and Southampton, it has some rural and sparsely populated areas including the New Forest. The trust has nearly 500 staff, 68 emergency ambulances and eight fast-response vehicles, and last year it handled around 86,000 emergency calls.
I am sure that Mr. Hammond will join me in taking the opportunity to thank all the staff of the Hampshire ambulance services for the tremendous work that Dr. Brand was right to say that because of their reliability, we tend to be grateful on the days that we need them but there is a danger that we may forget their daily work. I want to reassure ambulance services everywhere that they are not forgotten. I hope that the extra investment and the development work in their role and function over the last few years will reassure ambulance services everywhere that, although formerly they could justifiably have been described as the forgotten service, that is not the case now. They play a vital role as part of the NHS family.
I was grateful that other hon. Members reiterated that, while it is an emergency service, the ambulance service is seen as an integral part of the NHS family and should remain so. The value of the work of Hampshire ambulance service is abundantly clear from the way that it has provided medical care in times of need such as the recent major chemical fire in Portsmouth. The Government have given a high priority to improving emergency response times to those patients who are severely ill or injured. Anyone reading the national service framework for coronary heart disease or the NHS plan will see just how much emphasis has been placed on the need for improved response time standards.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge highlighted the function of ambulances. The question whether a patient should be just transported or receive immediate care varies, depending on the circumstances. We must get away from seeing the ambulance service as people carriers. They are highly trained paramedics who can fulfil important functions.