MERSEY Regional Ambulance Service is to receive up to £500,000 extra funding after hitting response time targets to get ambulances to life-threatening emergencies.

An initial one-off payment of £100,000 is being awarded by the the Department of Health today , after the service consistently hit the eight-minute response time target in April, May and June this year.

Similar grants are also due to be announced at 80 hospitals this morning, including Alder Hey and Whiston on Merseyside, after they reached four-hour accident and emergency waiting time targets.

It comes as the ambulance service today also releases figures that prove it has dramatically improved the time taken to answer 999 calls.

A meeting of the service performance board last week heard far fewer 999 calls are being answered beyond the target time of two minutes, than seven months ago.

During November last year, the emergency control centre received 23,104 calls, of which 2% (485) took longer than two minutes to answer.

The latest figures for April 2004 show the figure had reduced to 160 calls out of 21,700 - less than 1%.

By May it had fallen to 144 out of 23,608 - despite an overall increase in the number of calls into the emergency control centre.

The improved rates started in December 2003 when the ambulance service installed new computer systems at its control room, and started to recruit extra staff.

The improvements were paid for out of £2.5m extra Government funding following massive criticisms of the service on Merseyside.

The service is one of 18 ambulance services to be rewarded out of 31 in the UK today, as part of a new Government scheme to boost capital investment.

Last night, Janet Davies, ambulance service chief executive, said: "We are absolutely delighted with this announcement, which comes on the back of our two star performance review.

"It is a tribute to all the hard work and commitment of frontline and back office staff within the trust.

"We will be working hard to ensure we keep the momentum going each month."

Further payments of up to £45,000 per month could be received if the service continues to hit its main response time target for immediately life threatening calls month on month. It could amount to around £500,000 extra funding by April next year.

Chairman Ken Hoskisson added: "The trust board has made a firm commitment that any extra investment through the incentive scheme will be put to use in delivering something tangible and of benefit to those that made it possible. On behalf of the trust board I would like to sincerely thank all our staff for their hard work and commitment."