St John is preparing to step up ambulance services if Covid-19 takes hold in New Zealand with plans that include calling in paramedic trainees.

It has also said it is ready to help accelerate the testing regime by having its staff available across the country.

The ambulance service provider is among the many agencies making plans for community transmission of the virus in New Zealand.

St John director of operations Daniel Ohs said: "We're not quite sure where this is going to land."


Ohs said the ambulance service was taking lead from the Ministry of Health to prepare for the virus entering a more intrusive phase, while also working with other health providers to see how it could support the wider system.

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Steps already taken included diverting staff to support Healthline, which became overwhelmed by calls over the weekend.

In preparation for the virus entering the community, Ohs said St John had anticipated a need for greater numbers of people able to work on the frontline.

That included finding space in its workforce - paid and volunteer - for "surge capacity". This would see an increase the numbers of fully-trained staff able to work and interact with patients.

Ohs said doing so included the prospect of bringing in staff not needed for other duties - ambulance officers assigned to events now cancelled - or having volunteer St John staff team up with specialist paramedics to free up resources.

It could, for example, see ambulances staffed by a volunteer as a driver with a paramedic working in the back, rather than having two paramedics aboard.

Other flexibility found in the system included 100 first aid instructors who would be available if first aid courses were no longer running.


If increased staff required an increase in ambulance vehicles, there were communities with second ambulances it would look to draw on, he said.

Other avenues to bolster numbers included recruiting almost 300 trainee paramedics and tutors from tertiary training, he said.

Ohs said increased numbers would also give St John greater reach when it came to treating people at home.

He said the first call for those concerned remained Healthline's 0800 number. Staff answering those calls would triage cases and transfer calls for urgent care to St John, which could then visit people to see whether they could be treated at home or needed transport to a medical centre.

That was standard practice now and would continue, he said. With the virus outbreak, it was bolstered by a new operational call centre with particular expertise to work through complex or unusual issues experienced by people.

Ohs said the critical decision was when - if needed - to "push the button" to move to "surge capacity". As in other areas, he said the ambulance service would be guided by the Ministry of Health.

As the outbreak developed abroad, Ohs said St John had received an increase in calls from those complaining of respiratory issues. It normally fielded about 200 calls a day on respiratory conditions but that number had consistently come in higher, with 22 the smallest increase and 40 extra calls the greatest.