AMBULANCE unions have revealed staff are working up to 70 hours a week to keep the Lancashire fleet on the road.

And after urgent talks with management, they have refused to work excessive overtime and given bosses four weeks to sort the problem out before they consider union action.

But ambulance managers have denied there is a problem and said the service was meeting all its Government targets.

Unison branch secretary Hugh Moores, a paramedic at the Blackburn station, claimed East Lancashire was regularly short of up to six ambulances out of 35 because of the shortages of technicians and paramedics.

He said: "In the last few months, it's happened quite a lot, often once or twice a week."

Mr Moores said so far, patients had not been left waiting despite the shortages but it could happen.

And he said many staff were on the verge of breakdowns under the strain of trying to keep the rotas filled.

Mr Moores said: "The management has got away with it for a long time because large numbers of people have been prepared to work many, many hours.

"But people are beginning to say they've had enough. The human body can only take so much and eventually it either snaps or you have to stop." According to the latest figures, stress accounts for about a sixth of all sickness absence, and costs the Trust about £77,000 a year.

At least four people have retired on grounds of stress-related ill health in the last year.

Mr Moores said ambulance bosses had offered to send junior managers back on the road as paramedics temporarily to try and plug the gaps.

Lancashire Ambulance Service director Anthony Marsh denied the claims that the area had less ambulance cover because of staff shortages, and denied that excessive overtime had even been mentioned.

Mr Marsh said there was no upper limit for the amount of overtime staff were allowed to work and said he didn't know the maximum number of hours staff were working.

He said: "All overtime is voluntary. Some people like it more than others, and it is flexible."

Mr Marsh said more overtime had been available recently because they had been putting out extra vehicles for the winter.

He said that, although some vehicles may occasionally be off the road in one area, they are replaced with extra vehicles elsewhere to keep the fleet as a whole above agreed levels.

Mr Marsh said: "We are never five vehicles down. I don't think our staff are annoyed at what's going on. Some people have their own view and agenda."

Nigel Robinson, chief officer of the patient watchdog Community Health Council, said he planned to request meetings with the Lancashire Ambulance Service management. He said the ambulance service was under pressure to meet targets and, although new staff were being trained, the situation at the moment was not good.

He said: "The service is under enormous pressure. I keep getting reassurances from the managers that cover is adequate but I have concerns about it.

"It's not good for people to work that level of overtime consistently. The service is meeting targets but this is not the way to do it.

"We know from reports about junior doctors that working very long hours increases the risk of mistakes being made in treatment."

Mr Robinson added that the CHC very rarely received complaints about ambulance staff, who instead received many more compliments.