The NHS is spending more than £1 million a week hiring private ambulances to attend emergency calls, according to research by a trade union.
Unison said its figures were based on responses from two thirds of ambulance trusts in England that pay commercial companies to provide cover for critically ill patients.
More than a dozen private companies are being commissioned by ambulance trusts across England to fill widening gaps in services and to meet response times amid overwhelming demand, the union claimed.
Trusts are booking private emergency vehicles and crews up to a year in advance to be available to respond to emergency incidents such as road traffic accidents and stroke patients, said Unison.
It warned that spending tens of millions on private 999 cover is a “short-term fix, not a long-term solution to the crisis in ambulance services”.
Speaking ahead of the union’s annual health conference in Bournemouth, Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said: “This spend on private 999 services shows a lack of long-term planning and is a shocking waste of money.
“It’s nothing more than a sticking-plaster solution.
“Ambulance services are in a desperate state because the Government has failed to invest long term.
“Patients are waiting ages for help to arrive or worse still dying before crews can reach them.
“Others are stuck in emergency vehicles outside hospitals for hours and hours on end waiting for a bed.
“This is a crisis of the Government’s own making that can only be resolved with a long-term plan.
“Ministers must step up and come up with proper funding to tackle increasing demand and pay staff properly.”