Why the NHS’s electric ambulance rollout calls for climate cheer

Frank Barrett
2 January, 23
Like most people, I find the seemingly relentless stream of environmental bad news tough to read. If the planet were a person, they’d be dialling 999.

Like most people, I find the seemingly relentless stream of environmental bad news tough to read. If the planet were a person, they’d be dialling 999.

But amongst the gloom, there is, I believe, an underreported good news story: the NHS is calling time on its tailpipe emissions.

Few people know that the NHS has set itself radical targets for cleaner fleets. It wants 90% of NHS vehicles to be low-carbon, hybrid or electric by 2028: that’s only six years away.

Given my engineering background, I can offer you an insider’s perspective on one aspect of this plan. And it’s a positive story from which we can take some climate hope and optimism.

In 2020, our own VCS Limited, which forms WN VTech’s Emergency Services division, built the UK’s first all-electric front-line ambulance. I vividly recall my VCS colleagues, with the guidance of our NHS contacts, working tirelessly to make it.

There was no blueprint to follow, as it had never been done before. They had to start from scratch. But their efforts were hugely rewarding and worthwhile, and its rollout was a huge success.

What’s more, VCS has built on this success by developing a next-generation dual crewed ambulance this year, which was unveiled at the Emergency Services Show 2022.

And unsurprisingly, since then, the NHS has been accelerating this adoption. In August 2022, it announced a separate trial of 21 zero-emission vehicles across eight ambulance trusts in addition to the work it had done with VCS.

Dr Nick Watts, Chief Sustainability Officer at NHS England, said: “We know that climate change has an impact on health, and the NHS can play its part in preventing ill-health by looking at new ways to reduce emissions.

“Each electric vehicle costs less to run and maintain, meaning these new vehicles will spend more time on the road and change the way we deliver care in the community – whilst also cutting our carbon footprint as we strive to make NHS services greener and more efficient as part of our ambition to hit net zero by 2040.”

I’m proud to have played a small part in helping the NHS along on its green journey. But I’m also a realist: I’m acutely aware that, like most organisations with commercial fleets, the NHS still has a long way to go.

Bloomberg New Energy Futures (BNEF) has illustrated how far the world still has to go on clean vehicle transportation. Good news first: it expects electric vehicles to quintuple by 2025 and reckons four out of five types of vehicles are roughly on track to decarbonise or are on an upward trajectory.

Now the not-so-good news. BNEF says medium and heavy commercial vehicle fleets, responsible for 30% of vehicle CO2 emissions, are not on track to decarbonise and require urgent policy measures.

Still, let’s not forget that social change is rarely linear. Instead, change happens exponentially. Look at BNEF’s prediction for the quintupling of electric vehicles on the roads in three years’ time. Look at iPhone adoption.

The NHS is admired across the world. And where one inspirational organisation leads, others can, and hopefully will follow, inspiring a positive feedback loop of one-upmanship.

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