Employment

Why are NHS ambulance workers going on strike?

Leader of the London Ambulance Service has warned that “some people will have longer waits and some people won’t get an ambulance at all”

Ambulances queue outside the Royal Cornwall Hospital

Ambulances queue outside the Royal Cornwall Hospital in November. Image: Faye Shepherd

Roughly 25,000 NHS ambulance staff in England and Wales are set to strike this month over pay and staffing shortages they say are crippling the service.

Unable to reach a pay deal with the government, the additional dates are an escalation of the dispute which saw ambulance workers strike in late December – the first national ambulance strike since 1990. 

NHS trusts are again scrambling to put in place plans to deal with the walkout, and while there is a legal requirement that industrial action does not endanger human life or cause serious injury, there are concerns over patient safety. 

Paramedics and unions, meanwhile, say patient safety is already at risk every day in the NHS because of the government’s failure to invest in adequate staffing levels to keep up with growing demand. SAt least 10 NHS trusts declared critical incidents in December  due to unprecedented demand on their services before the strikes took place.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “The government has had months to intervene and end this dispute but has failed to do so. They choose to attack NHS workers rather than get more money for the NHS from profiteering companies. They repeatedly refuse to sit down and negotiate to resolve the dispute. 

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“The prime minister needs to step up to the moment and lead. That is what he is paid for.”

So, unless an agreement is reached, here’s when and where the strikes will take place, and what’s being done to try to cope with the disruption.

What dates are ambulance workers going on strike?

Ambulance workers at three unions – Unison, GMB and Unite – are set to walkout on two dates this month:

Wednesday January 11 ( GMB and Unison members in England and Wales)

Thursday 19 January (Unite members employed by the Welsh ambulance service)

Wednesday January 23 (Unison and Unite members in England and Wales)

(Members of GMB had been set to strike on December 28, however this was delayed until January 11.)

Which ambulance trusts are facing strike action?

Ambulance workers including paramedics, emergency care assistants, ambulance technicians and other 999 crew, will take part in strike action on Wednesday January 11 at the following NHS trusts:

GMB

South West Ambulance Service

South East Coast Ambulance Service

North West Ambulance Service

South Central Ambulance Service

North East Ambulance Service

East Midlands Ambulance Service

West Midlands Ambulance Service

Welsh Ambulance Service

Yorkshire Ambulance Service

Unison

London Ambulance Service

Yorkshire Ambulance Service

North West Ambulance Service

North East Ambulance Service

South West Ambulance Service

Strike action on January 23 will take place at the following NHS trusts:

Unison

London Ambulance Service

Yorkshire Ambulance Service

North West Ambulance Service

North East Ambulance Service

South West Ambulance Service

Unite:

West Midlands Ambulance Service

North West Ambulance Service

North East Ambulance Service

Welsh Ambulance Service

West Midlands Ambulance Service

Why are paramedics and other ambulance workers going on strike?

The ambulance service, like much of the NHS, is facing an ongoing crisis over staffing levels. With hospitals reaching full capacity, ambulances are having to wait in hours-long queues before they can drop off their patients. Waiting times for an ambulance have increased, with the average wait in rural areas highest – in Cornwall you can expect to wait around an hour 41 minutes for an ambulance.

Unions say that higher pay is the only solution to preventing ambulance staff from leaving the profession, and making the job attractive enough for new recruits. 

The government imposed a 4 per cent pay award on many NHS employees in its 2022 pay review, which was described as another “massive real-terms pay cut” by GMB. 

“It’s never been this bad,” Jason Kirkham, who has worked in the ambulance service for 20 years told The Big Issue.“ The pressures we’re under, the calls, the ambulance wait times, the wait times patients are experiencing. Twelve months ago we would rarely have calls stacking, and now it’s a daily occurrence that we have around 300 calls waiting to attend.”

“I do genuinely believe we are at a point that we have to do something to save the NHS,” he continued. 

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The government argues there are record numbers of staff working in the NHS, with over 31,000 more employees compared to a year ago – a 2.5 per cent increase. 

“More healthcare staff means better care for patients, which is why it’s fantastic to see a record number of over 1.2 million staff working hard in the NHS,” said health secretary Steve Barclay.

“With over 3,700 more doctors and 9,100 more nurses, we are really putting patients first and NHS England is developing a long-term workforce plan so we can continue to recruit and retain more NHS staff.”

Will ambulances be available during the strike?

NHS England has asked for GPs to be redeployed to the ambulance service during the strike. GPs who step in to cover ambulance worker shifts with the London Ambulance Service will receive half a day of training.

In response to the request, Dr David Mummery, a GP in West London, said: “GP practices are already completely inundated with clinical demand with the current Strep A concerns amongst others, are getting huge numbers of e-consultations, and are struggling to meet the demands of their practice populations.

“So the idea of ‘releasing staff’ in an already crisis situation regarding clinical demand in primary care may be a bit far-fetched.”

The military is being drafted in to help some trusts, including the North West Ambulance Service and South Western Ambulance Service (SWAST).

“Please be reassured that we are doing all we can to manage winter pressures and the upcoming industrial action, including receiving military support during industrial action days which will allow our ambulance clinicians to be manning more ambulances and reach patients more quickly”, reads a statement on the SWAST website. 

In December, the Ministry of Defence confirmed 750 military personnel would be deployed to cover ambulance strikes – with 650 people from the army, navy and airforce expected to drive ambulances.

Will patients have to take a taxi to get to hospital? 

While ambulances will still be sent to the most life-threatening emergencies, patients who are in conditions deemed to be non-life-threatening – including pregnant women and people in care homes – will be asked to take a taxi. In December the government claimed that  it was looking into block-booking taxis for less urgent 999 calls.

What should you do if you need an ambulance during the strike?

The government has emphasised that anyone experiencing chest pains or who has had a bad fall should still call 999 and would be sent an ambulance.

“If you have chest pains, call 999 and the expectation is, and I’ve been really clear with you, I don’t think that there is any paramedic, ambulance technician, anyone working in our NHS, whether they’re on a picket line or not, that would not respond to a 999 call where somebody has chest pains and there is a threat of a heart attack,” health minister Will Quince told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in December.

He also asked the public to avoid “risky activities” during the strikes, though he stopped short of defining what counts as risky.

Daniel Elkeles, chief executive of the London Ambulance Service, has urged not to call 999 during Wednesday’s strike unless it is life or limb-threatening to “help fellow Londoners in their time of need”.

He warned the strike would mean “some people will have longer waits and some people won’t get an ambulance at all”.

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