THE NHS is spending more than £21million a year across the region hiring private ambulances to answer 999 calls and take patients to hospital appointments.

A widespread shortage of paramedics and rising demand is behind the need to call on help from non-NHS providers, according to experts.

South Central ambulance service spent the most on private services last year – £16.3m, up from its £13.6m outlay the year before and £12.3m in 2014-15, figures released under freedom of information laws have revealed.

Meanwhile the bill for South Western Ambulance Service was £5,489,418 last year, £5,296,246 the year before and £3,275,051 in 2014/15.

A spokesman for the Independent Ambulance Association (IAA) said the main reasons for a rise in private ambulance use in the last two years were “staff shortages in NHS ambulance trusts, combined with continued increases in demand”.

The benefits of using independent firms include flexibility and good value for money as “it’s cheaper for the NHS than paying overtime”, he added.

Private ambulances are hired from private firms as well as charities such as St John Ambulance and the Red Cross.

The figures also showed some trusts are having to spend more on certain groups of temporary staff, including emergency paramedics.

South Western Ambulance Service spent £317,905 on agency paramedics last year, which was down from a £728,770 bill in 2015/16. However the trust spent a total of £2,251,253 was on agency staff which includes other medical and admin staff last year.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The ambulance service answers more than 10 million calls every year and the vast majority of patients get an excellent service.

"Occasionally, ambulance trusts use other providers including St John Ambulance to help with spikes in demand, and these providers are subject to the same rigorous safety and quality inspections as NHS ambulances."