More than 1,000 staff at East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) have signed an open letter condemning plans to make changes to paramedics and other responders’ meal-breaks, and remove an agreement set up to reduce late finishes.

Staff union Unison say the proposals are "unacceptable", but the trust insists the plans are necessary to improve their worsening performance.

EEAST says it is trying to recruit extra staff and has put forward draft proposals to the union aimed at "improving our responsiveness to patients and reduce shift overruns."

The trust is also launching plans to increase its clinical staff by several hundred, to help turn performance around.

But the row over the proposals affecting meal breaks and late finishes comes just two week ahead a key inspection by health watchdog the Care Quality Commission.

Currently ambulance crews have to take their meal breaks at a base where they can access bathroom and kitchen facilities.

But EEAST is proposing to have the power to put staff on their break five minutes after finishing with a patient, meaning they may not have access to those facilities as they might be far away from a base.

Additionally, under the new proposals, crews could be asked to respond to Green calls (less serious cases) in the last hour of their shift, meaning the chances of finishing late increases. Currently staff working within the last hour of their shift are only eligible to be sent to Red calls (emergency calls).

Fraer Stevenson, Unison branch secretary, said: "There is a growing divide between the board and their frontline staff.

"The biggest reason why the trust can't meet its performance targets is the fact that it can't keep its staff, and these changes will make the situation far worse.

"Committed and experienced staff are voting with their feet and walking away.

"Staff look to their chief executive and the chairman for support and protection - especially when they are already struggling to cope with the pressures. Putting forwards these measures will destroy the trust placed in them by their staff.

"Ambulance staff and the general public deserve better leadership."

In its briefing to staff, the EEAST 
said it would trial the measure 
from March 29, but a spokesman refused to confirm when a decision would be made on whether or not to proceed with the proposals.

The spokesman said: "The ambulance service, and its staff, are under increasing pressure due to the significant increase in demand, the acuity of our patients, hospital handover delays, and the need to abstract staff so they can continue their student paramedic education. In February alone, EEAST responded to 10pc more 999 calls than the previous February.

"As part of our plans, we've actioned a number of measures aimed primarily at improving services to patients and relieving some pressure on staff.

"This includes maximising the number of clinical staff on duty in patient-facing roles, increasing our clinical staffing in our control rooms, working with our hospitals and clinical commissioning groups to tackle hospital handover delays, and asking the public to make the right call. If someone needs help but it is not an emergency, there are the options of calling 111 or visiting a pharmacy or minor injuries unit."

EEAST board meets in public in Luton on Wednesday.