By Farouq Suleiman and Paul Sandle
LONDON (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Thousands of ambulance workers in England and Wales walked out on pay on Wednesday, mounting pressure on a state-funded health service a day after nurses went on strike as government ministers advised the public to avoid taking risks.
The government said the “deeply regrettable” strike would result in fewer ambulances on the road, with priority only for the most urgent life-threatening cases, such as heart attacks.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said the public should ‘just use common sense’, adding that the action came as the National Health Service (NHS) was ‘already facing very significant pressure’ from cases of flu and COVID-19.
“This is where the unions chose to take industrial action and in doing so were unwilling to work with us to agree national exemptions in terms of coverage of all categories category one, category two, life threatening and emergency calls,” he told the BBC.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said she was shocked by Barclay’s comments as detailed contingency plans had been agreed in local areas.
“This implication that we have somehow been negligent is really quite shocking,” he told RockedBuzz via Reuters during a picket line in the capital. “(It’s) scaremongering in the audience.”
He said health workers, including ambulance crews, were “leaving in droves” because services had been curtailed.
“This puts extra pressure on staff who are being left behind,” he said, adding that health authorities are struggling to recruit and retain workers.
Tim Stephens, a 44-year-old paramedic, said the pressure on all ambulance staff was “absolutely unprecedented”.
“We cannot keep up with this pace of work and our patients, particularly in the ambulance service, are waiting hours and hours on a daily basis,” he said.
McAnea’s counterpart at Unite, Sharon Graham, said all category one calls will be answered, while category two calls, which include conditions such as stroke, will be evaluated by healthcare professionals.
“This strike was not meant to happen,” he told the BBC. “(The government) needs to get back to the negotiating table so we can get a proper pay rise for these workers and everyone can go back to work.”
The third union, the GMB, said pay in the health service had fallen by 17% in real terms since 2010, while demand for ambulances had increased by 77% over the same period.
An independent pay review body has awarded more than 1 million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 ($1,704), equivalent to at least a 4 per cent increase for most ambulance staff, according to the government.
The unions have asked for an increase in inflation, which in November stood at 10.7% on the measure of consumer prices.
Barclay said he is focused on clearing backlogs from the pandemic and reducing delays in admitting patients arriving at hospitals by ambulance.
He said the government had accepted the wage review body’s recommendations, which went into effect nearly nine months ago.
“We’ve already started the payment process for next year, for next April, and that’s where the discussion should be,” he told LBC Radio.
The NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said the strike put patient safety at risk.
“This is the worst possible time for industrial action,” Chief Executive Matthew Taylor told ITV.
“It was already the case even without the ambulance’s industrial action today that we were taking twice as long to get to category two people.”
The military has been placed on standby to help drive and direct emergency vehicles, but soldiers won’t have all the powers ambulance personnel have to respond or provide clinical care.
($1 = 0.8216 pounds)
(Additional reporting by Suban Abdulla; Editing by Sandra Maler, David Evans and Jonathan Oatis)