AMBULANCE staff had on average two weeks off sick each last year, say worried health chiefs.

The high levels of sickness among ambulance crews and emergency call handlers was laid bare at a meeting of the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

Diarrhoea, vomiting, coughs, colds, flu and viral infections were blamed for short-term sickness and depression, anxiety, stress and back pain for longer spells off work.

Long term sickness (more than four weeks off) needs to be sanctioned by a doctor, short term sickness (under a week off) is usually uncertified or self-certified.

John Lancaster, a non-executive director, said: "The level we're talking about amounts to two weeks on average per person per year. Are we doing enough to manage the process?

"How many of you here have had two weeks of sickness? We're fighting a losing battle to provide a good service."

Board chairman Sir Graham Meldrum said there was a "tremendous variation" in sickness levels across Hereford, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Birmingham and the Black Country, Coventry and Warwickshire and Staffordshire.

Across the trust 6.38 per cent of available working days were lost between February 2007 and January this year - the equivalent of two weeks per staff member per year.

Within the Hereford, Worcestershire and Shropshire division of the service there was a slightly lower level of sickness at 6.24 per cent.

However, this still means just under two working weeks is being lost to sickness.

The NHS target is to have under six per cent of working days lost to absence each year.

Kim Nurse, director of human resources, said sickness had an impact on services and a meeting had been arranged on Tuesday, March 4, to find a solution to problems posed by it.

She said: "Across the board no-one is happy with the current levels of sickness."

January in particular was a bad month for absences - a total 7.16 per cent of available working days were lost to sickness across Hereford and Worcestershire in January, higher than in Coventry and Warwickshire (6.35 per cent) and Staffordshire (6.79 per cent) but lower than Birmingham and the Black Country (8.74 per cent) and Shropshire (9.24 per cent).

A spokesman for the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust said after the meeting that ambulance staff were more likely to get sick because they were in contact with poorly people and also more likely to be advised to stay off work when ill to stop the spread of infections to patients.

A standardised system has now been introduced to measure sickness levels across all the regions covered by the trust following the merger which formed the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust in July 2006.