Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says the state’s ambulance response times were the best ever just weeks before the pandemic. Is that correct?

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The claim

Health was high on the agenda at Tuesday night’s leaders’ debate in Victoria, ahead of this weekend’s state election.

“We had the very best ambulance response times in the history of our state … just weeks before COVID hit,” Premier Daniel Andrews claimed.

He repeated the claim minutes later, as he praised paramedics for delivering “the very best ambulance response times in the history of our state,” and then again, saying paramedics were “absolutely determined to replicate … what they did just weeks before COVID arrived: deliver the best response times in the history of our state”.

These echo a claim he made at a press conference on October 19, where he told journalists:

The day we were sworn in, ambulance services were in a terrible state. We then worked hard, in partnership with our paramedics, to deliver the very best ambulance response times on record, ever. That was before the pandemic. Just weeks before the pandemic, in fact.

So, were Victoria’s ambulance response times the very best in the history of the state just prior to the pandemic?

RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Mr Andrews’s claim is spin.

While ambulances have been in operation in Victoria, in some form, for almost 140 years, less than two decades of comparable data is available to assess his claim.

Even some of this data may not be comparable, according to the Productivity Commission.

This would mean that as little as 15 years of data is available.

At most, there is 18 years of data available. This data shows ambulance response times were at their best under the Bracks Labor government, but that era is not directly comparable.

Nevertheless, response times had improved significantly under the Andrews government prior to the pandemic, although they were at their best a year before the pandemic, not weeks.

They have crashed since.

Victoria ambulance outside the Melbourne Juvenile Justice Centre
There is no comparable data for ambulance response times for the majority of the state’s history.(ABC News: Seraphine Charpentier Andre)

What are ‘ambulance response times’?

Ambulance Victoria says response times “are measured from the receipt of the triple zero (000) call until paramedics arrive on scene“.

Each call “is assessed on clinical need”. Code 1 patients are designated as requiring urgent paramedic and hospital care — in other words, a “lights and sirens” response.

Two ambulances and two rescue cars with lights flashing parked closely together
A “lights and sirens” emergency ambulance response is referred to as “code 1”.(ABC News)

These are time critical, and Ambulance Victoria has “two official response time targets” they aim to meet:

  • Respond to Code 1 incidents within 15 minutes for 85% of incidents state-wide, and

  • Respond to Code 1 incidents within 15 minutes for 90% of incidents in centres with populations greater than 7,500.

Code 2 cases are “acute, but not time critical” and do not require a lights and sirens approach.

Malcolm Boyle, an associate professor and academic lead in paramedic education at Griffith University, told Fact Check “timely response” rates are the key performance indicator which the organisation reports to the government.

What data is available?

As Fact Check has previously explained, Victoria has had ambulances since 1883, and began using radio dispatchers to allocate jobs to them in 1954.

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