An embattled ambulance trust is considering the use of volunteers and even the army to drive patients due to a shortage of staff.

The East of England Ambulance Services Trust held “very early discussions” about community first responders driving ambulances, according to an internal email seen by the Health Service Journal.

Senior leadership said it wanted feedback from its volunteers on how they could be further utilised including driving standard 999 ambulances – a move believed to be unprecedented within the NHS.

The trust is even considering drafting the military to cover staff shortages, and volunteer community first responders would only be used in “low acuity patient” cases.

Community first responders are lay people who receive five days “intensive” training to deliver basic yet crucial support before paramedics arrive.

The trust, which is one of the worst performers in the country on the most urgent response times, told the Health Service Journal it would consider using “other emergency services and the military” to plug gaps this winter, adding it would be criticised if it did not consider such measures.

A senior paramedic said they were “absolutely horrified” by the proposal – a view shared by colleagues at other trusts. They added it showed how “desperate” the trust was and that similar problems to those experienced last winter when “significant” delays led to patient harm could be repeated.

An email from managers to staff this week said: “The senior leadership group want to obtain feedback from CFR groups on the potential utilisation of CFRs in supporting double crewed ambulances and attending low acuity patients where the CFR could then potentially drive qualified crew members and patients to the appropriate care home.

“This option does require the driving licence holder to also hold C1 on their licence which allows the holder to drive vans up to 7.5 tonnes.”

It is unknown how many CFRs hold this licence, but paramedics expressed concerns about safety and governance.

They said: “Does it pose a risk to patient safety? Without a doubt. What happens if the patient suddenly deteriorates and needs to be blue lighted to hospital?

“The paramedic in the back can’t do it. They need to be attending the patient. The staff are very against it. As a paramedic you want to be working with someone who is qualified and knows what they are doing.

“I have never heard anything like this in all my years. CFRs fulfil a very important role in their respective communities, but they should be there in their communities, not on frontline ambulances.

“I told colleagues at other trusts about the plans and they were absolutely horrified.”

Under separate plans the trust plans to employ 330 additional staff and 160 ambulances.

In a statement the trust said volunteers had supported patient care for over 20 years bringing “skills and knowledge” during times of extreme pressure.

They said CFRs could be sent to non-injury fall patients, adding: “Should the majority of CFRs agree this is something the trust should potentially take forward, further detailed discussions would need to be held to ensure all the relevant governance, training and patient safety aspects are addressed.

“While our long-term plan is delivered, it is imperative that the trust consider every alternative to maximise existing and alternative resources to support our patients across the winter period.

“In doing do, the trust will consider the use of volunteers, other emergency services and the military. Indeed, the trust would rightly be criticised for not doing so.

“Despite multiple reviews in recent months, the trust’s processes have been deemed sound with no recommendations for change from any organisation.”

East of England MEP Alex Mayer said: “It’s a sad indictment of this government who have left our NHS so underfunded that such desperate measures are on the table. But this is not the right prescription. We need to ensure there are enough properly trained health professionals on the front line - not give the green light to volunteers.”