A HEALTH watchdog has criticised the NHS spending £21m hiring private ambulances for patients across the region.

Manager of Healthwatch Dorset Martyn Webster said the figures highlight ‘the double whammy of rising demand and staff shortages.’

As reported in the Daily Echo, 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.

Mr Webster said: "Private ambulances and agency staff are no substitute for a properly funded NHS Ambulance service. The enormous sums of money being spent on them would be better spent on holding on to existing staff and training new ones."

A Department of Health spokesman said 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.