It smells of another cover-up ñ and it stinks!

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As many politicians have found to their cost, the cover-up can cause more problems than the original issue. Watergate started as a pretty silly break-in during the 1972 Presidential election — yet the subsequent cover-up eventually led to President Nixon becoming the first ever US President to be forced out of office.

The ambulance story reported last week on Audlem Online has yet again made front-page headlines, this time in the Chronicle and yesterday's Evening Sentinel. The newspapers reported on the 8-year old boy who, on Christmas Eve, collapsed and went blue around the mouth. It took an hour for the ambulance to arrive from north of Winsford in response to the emergency call. In November, you will recall, an Audlem man had to wait 70 minutes for an emergency ambulance to arrive from Widnes.

Those are big issues for the people concerned — President Nixon's Watergate dilemma was never a matter of life and death! Yet it's the responses to newspaper journalists' queries from the North West Ambulance Service that arouses calls of 'Cover-up'. On both occasions, the ambulance service has given times and excuses that are so far from the truth that it would not be unreasonable to suggest the public is being deliberately misled. Given that the 'response times' claimed by the ambulance service are demonstrably wrong and the excuses given on each occasion hugely questionable, it leads one to wonder whether the culture of 'targets' that now besets every public service may also be creating a culture of dishonest statistics.

With the November incident, the family concerned confirmed the response time as 70 minutes. The ambulance crew then apologised for taking 70 minutes to arrive — that was the time the crew had recorded themselves. Yet the ambulance service told the media the ambulance arrived in 59 minutes and gave precise, yet wrong times, to substantiate their claim. At the time we suggested, somewhat cynically, there must be a 60-minute target somewhere that had to met and 59 minutes was the maximum time their record keeping computer programme would accept.

That appears ever more likely with the more recent incident. The collapsed 8-year old boy and his family had to wait an hour for an ambulance to arrive. Yet, in this week's Chronicle and the Evening Sentinel, we are told by the ambulance service the ambulance arrived in 44 minutes. Worse still, the spokesman said the collapsed boy, going blue around the mouth, was not an emergency. He said: "During this particular call, based on the information given, the call-taker established that the patient was conscious, breathing normally and alert, and therefore it was classified as a green call. The crew reached the patient in 44 minutes." It transpires that the national response rate for non-life threatening calls (green calls) is, yes you've guessed, 60 minutes.

The spokesman isn't reported on the crew's explanation for their lengthy response time that they thought they'd been called out to treat an 80-year old rather than an 8-year old — as if the age of the victim should make any difference whatsoever.

The key issue is clearly to make the ambulance service improve their coverage of South Cheshire and stop sending ambulances from far-flung towns such as Widnes. But doing something about the misleading statistics being used by the ambulance service to cover-up their failures must also be tackled. If you can't believe what people tell you in a public body like the ambulance service, we'll soon start to doubt all the official statistics and targets we are bombarded with. That might make us doubt the very truthfulness of Government — and where would we be then?