Opinion

For those in the ambulance service, strike days are no different from business as usual

As 10,000 ambulance workers take part in a national strike, one paramedic writes to health secretary Steve Barclay laying bare the scale of the NHS crisis and pleading with the government to fix it

NHS ambulance workers are taking part in a national strike on December 21. Image: Krzysztof Hepner / Unsplash

Dear Steve Barclay, I’m a paramedic at an NHS ambulance service in England. Today is strike day, and I’m begging you to put aside your party’s dispute with trade unions and fix our NHS. The strikes aren’t going to break it, it’s already broken. 

A few days ago, I went to a man in his 30s with a treatable illness who had been waiting 12 hours for an ambulance. His heart had stopped beating by the time I arrived. 

I truly believe that if he had been seen in 18 minutes – the target for category 2 emergency calls like his – he would have lived. He should have been taken to hospital, spent a few days in a bed cared for by world-leading nurses, and discharged in time for Christmas.

I’ve never seen anything like the crisis we’re facing now. It’s unsafe and the level of suffering is more than I saw even during the pandemic. I very rarely cry at work. To work in the ambulance service you have to develop an outer shell that keeps your mind on the job, whether that’s a rape scene, murder or violence against children. But that day I sat in my cab crying my eyes out thinking of that dead man’s poor family. Because this was completely avoidable. 

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In one trust there were 420 patients waiting for an ambulance in a single evening earlier this month and more than 150 ambulances were waiting outside a hospital to hand over a patient. The South Western Ambulance Service has already issued a warning to the public that ambulances may only be able to respond to calls when “there is the most immediate risk to life”. The East of England Ambulance Service has already declared a critical incident. This is before the strikes have taken place.

This is our new business as usual. This story is not a one-off antidote but an hourly occurrence up and down the country. These people should not be dying and their families should not be going through this. You, as health secretary, have warned that ambulances may not get to all emergency calls during the strike. They’re not getting to all of them anyway. 

During that worst shift of my life, we might as well have had all our staff on strike. And the crazy thing is, if all our staff are on a picket line, they are legally required to leave to respond to the most serious category of emergencies. In that scenario they might be able to get to patients quicker than during my shift when there were hundreds of ambulance crew members stuck in queues outside hospitals. 

I pay my union subs, but I’m no trade unionist. If that man had died during a strike day because my colleagues were standing on a picket line rather than going to save his life, I couldn’t support that. But he died on a “normal day”. This is our new normal.

Personally, I’m not too concerned about my pay as I don’t have any dependents. But to do this job, what I need more than anything is more colleagues. 

And if the only way we can persuade my colleagues to stop quitting, or to persuade new recruits to do this job that exposes you to traumatic events daily, is terrible for your mental health, and takes up your nights and weekends, is to raise their pay, then we’re going to have to give them the pay they want.

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