Campaigners are questioning how Cumbria’s ambulance service will cope with more work after inspectors flagged up major staff shortages and delays handing over patients at A&E.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) this week ordered the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) to make safety improvements, highlighting paramedic vacancy rates among its problems.

The findings have cast further doubt on Success Regime plans to downgrade services in west Cumbria, resulting in patients being taken to Carlisle.

Earlier this week Police and Crime Commissioner Peter McCall revealed police are being called out “on an almost daily basis” to assist the under pressure ambulance service with urgent cases.

Campaigners believe the report from the national watchdog, which rated NWAS as “requires improvement”, is further proof that the ambulance service is already pushed to its limits.

It stated that vacancy rates in north Cumbria were the highest in the region, at 20 per cent. It also flagged up delays handing over patients at A&E, saying long handover delays were resulting in a shortage of staff and vehicles to attend emergency calls.

Derek Cartwright, chief executive, said although staffing has been a problem they are working to fill gaps by launching university courses in Cumbria, bringing in foreign staff and increasing the number of technicians – the level below paramedic.

He said they have appointed more than 20 staff from Finland and Poland to work in north Cumbria and added that A&E handovers have improved. But local campaigners are concerned that, despite these efforts, crews will soon be placed under even more pressure.

Annette Robson, of the We Need West Cumberland Hospital campaign group, said: “Having been assured at every Success Regime consultation meeting that the ambulance service in Cumbria is fit for purpose we now discover that it is not – something we have been repeatedly saying.

“The pressure on NWAS has come from unsafe decisions forced on them by the hospitals trust. Given the fact that the ambulance service is not coping now, it is obvious that an increase in transfers will endanger lives and that moving services from West Cumberland Hospital should not be an option.”

Suzanne Kelsey, a health activist from Carlisle, added: “Obviously the service is struggling as it is and this can only be exacerbated with further downgrading and cuts. It is very frightening.”