THE chaos created when a private company took over a patient transport service from the NHS must not be allowed to happen again, councillors have warned.

Thousands of patients missed crucial hospital appointments and were left waiting for hours for an ambulance to take them home when Coperforma took on the contract in April this year.

It had previously been provided by South East Coast Ambulance Service but the handover went terribly wrong, leaving patients and staff angry and frustrated.

Coperforma has now lost the contract and it will be transferred to South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) next April.

Members of the West Sussex health and adult social care select committee yesterday raised concerns about the impact the change would have on patients using the service.

Committee vice-chairman James Walsh said: “Patients certainly went through a real period of hassle during the initial handover period although it has got better since.

“We do not want to see that deterioration again when SCAS take over completely.”

The county’s seven clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) drew up the new patient transport service contract which they awarded to Coperforma at the start of the year with the High Weald Lewes Havens CCG as the lead.

Alan Beasley, its chief finance officer, told the committee the handover is being done in stages in a bid to make it smoother this time.

He said: “It was one of the lessons learned from the handover. We are doing things in stages until the final full take-over next April so we can reduce any risk to patients.”

Concerns were also raised about whether SCAS, which already provides patient transport services in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire and is about to start another in Surrey, would have enough ambulances and staff in place to provide an uninterrupted service.

Mr Beasley said work was already being done on this issue and SCAS had given appropriate assurances.

It emerged during the meeting that Coperforma had taken the CCG by surprise when it approached to say it wanted to pull out of the contract.

Mr Beasley said: "This was an unforeseen outcome and it required immediate action."

Councillors also heard from GMB union representative Gary Palmer, who said staff had endured an “horrendous journey” with pay problems and the struggles they had trying to continue to provide the service in difficult circumstances.

He said staff were looking forward to working with SCAS over the coming months.

The committee has asked for another update on progress when it meets again next year.