CONCERNS about the Hampshire ambulance service in rural areas have been raised before health service watchdogs.

Romsey MP Sandra Gidley said she was worried that response times in the countryside still fell far short of targets, and she had spoken to staff in her constituency, demoralised by the constant failure to meet them.

She told the Winchester and Central Hampshire Community Health Council: "I am not reassured that anything is being done to address the problems in rural areas. There are no reassurances that ambulances are going to get to rural areas any quicker."

Currently, in rural areas, only 40 per cent of ambulances get to life-threatening emergencies within eight minutes, compared to the target of 50 per cent. Only 91 per cent get there within 19 minutes as against the target of 95 per cent.

From March, the targets will be higher - with 75 per cent of emergencies reached within only eight minutes.

Gerry Wilkinson, the service's director of operations, told the CHC the service would soon see benefits of a £450,000 investment, bringing 30 extra staff and five new "rapid response" vehicles. New control computers - including satellite tracking and automatic vehicle locating - would improve efficiency and response times, he said, with more ambulances to ferry patients on non-urgent calls - freeing up the emergency ambulances.

Also new was the growing use of first responders - trained volunteers armed with defibrillators, who can get to emergencies more quickly than ambulances.

Mr Wilkinson said the first responders will be used across Hampshire. A trial last year in Alresford was deemed a success.

He said: "There will be changes to the way ambulances are put on the road. I am confident we will soon see a big difference."

Mrs Gidley asked: "What evidence is there that first responders are as effective as fully trained two-man crew? It is all very well to hit targets, but you have to make sure you are delivering the best possible service."

CHC member Barry Lipscomb said: "There has been a huge investment in the ambulance service. The new control room is impressive. But it is high time there was a real sustained improvement."