LONG-term sickness at Great Western Hospital has caused operations at a unit for patients with critical heart conditions to end for more than four weeks, leaving paramedics no choice but to transport patients to Bristol for care.

The cardiac catheter laboratory treats victims of cardiac arrests and other emergencies and carries out 1,500 procedures a year.

But a paramedic for the South Western Ambulance Service, who asked not to be named, said he and his colleagues had been warned the service would not be available until further notice. This was more than four weeks ago, he said, and he is now growing concerned about the safety of patients.

“The lab is where somebody is treated when they are having a heart attack and their arteries are clogged up and they inflate a balloon in it to open up the blood flow. But it has been closed for a minimum of four weeks now.

“As a paramedic if I had someone with a heart problem I would have to take them to Oxford or Bristol. “I have not had to myself but I would guarantee that if it is closed one of our staff must have had to take someone to Oxford or Bristol.”

He added: “We just saw a notice saying it was closed in the office. It is quite concerning for anybody who is in A&E and has a heart attack because they won’t be able to treat them there.”

The suite is designed to treat a variety of cases and carry out procedures on emergency transfer and ambulance patients.

Great Western Hospital said only one specialist service had been suspended, while a number of staff members were on long-term sickness.

Dr Edward Barnes, consultant cardiologist at GWH, said some patients had had to be transported to Bristol for care. But he insisted that the labs were not closed but that ‘working schedules’ had had to be changed due to recent staff shortages.

“The cardiac catheter labs are not closed,” he said. “Due to members of staff being on long-term sick we have had to change our working schedules to work as effectively as possible, and for the last four weeks we have not been able to provide primary angioplasty in our catheter labs for acute heart attack patients. These patients are transferred to Bristol Heart Institute.”

Dr Barnes added only around 70 primary angioplasty operations were undertaken at the hospital every year, and could not confirm the number of patients who had been transferred.

“The decision to transfer patients was not taken lightly, and by transferring them to Bristol patients are experiencing a safer and more streamlined service which also supports more efficient working for the ambulance service,” he said.

“Patients will either go to Bristol or wherever their nearest open centre is. That could be Bath, Cheltenham, Oxford or Reading.

“We are actively recruiting locum replacements to enable us to continue offering primary angioplasty in the interim. “Our priority is always to ensure that we provide safe, high quality care to our patients.”

He added that people suffering cardiac arrests could still be treated at the hospital.