NHS ambulance staff belonging to three unions will walk out on 21 December, with a second strike scheduled for 28 December, unless a last-minute agreement can be forged in pay negotiations.
The strike by around 25,000 members of the GMB, Unite, Unison unions is the latest blow to Britain’s stricken health service after members of the Royal College of Nursing took part on industrial action on 15 and 20 December, joining rail workers, postmen and women, London bus drivers, Border Force agents, baggage handlers, teachers and driving examiners in demonstrating for better wages this month at a time when the UK remains mired in economic turmoil and runaway inflation.
Paramedics, emergency care assistants, control room workers and technicians from 10 out of 11 regional trusts will down tools in England and Wales on Wednesday unless a compromise can be reached, bringing major disruption, potentially placing lives at risk and forcing 750 military personnel to be drafted in to assist.
Junior health minister Will Quince invited ridicule on Tuesday when he told the British public to avoid engaging in “risky activity” during the strike in an interview with BBC Breakfast.
“Where people are planning any risky activity, I would strongly encourage them not to do so because there will be disruption on the day,” he said.
“But the key thing is for anybody that does have an emergency situation or a life-threatening situation that they continue to call 999.”
Health secretary Steve Barclay will meet with union officials on Tuesday to insist that both category 1 calls, the most immediate life-threatening cases, and category 2 calls – including heart attacks and strokes – should still be answered, without which, it is feared, vulnerable people could be left stranded.
So what exactly is the strike about? Let’s break it down.
What have ambulance staff been offered?
Ambulance staff have been offered a 4 per cent pay increase by the government – amounting to an additional £1,400 per head – but the unions have rejected it given that UK inflation is currently at 10.7 per cent, sending the cost of living soaring.
They have since criticised the government for its reluctance to return to the negotiating table to avert the disruption.
“There’d be no strikes at all if ministers would only talk to unions and improve NHS pay,” Unison’s general secretary Christine McAnea said on Monday.
She urged Mr Barclay to “throw all his energy into preventing the strikes from going ahead this week and preventing any escalation of action in the new year”.
What do ambulance staff want?
Ambulance staff are seeking a wage rise much closer to the rate of inflation and are frustrated at growing dysfunction within the NHS that has frequently left crews trapped in queues for hours outside of hospitals while they wait to hand over patients to overstretched accident and emergency (A&E) departments, themselves struggling to deal with a lengthy treatment backlog exacerbated by the pandemic.
Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said: “After 12 years of Conservative cuts to the service and their pay packets, NHS staff have had enough.
“The last thing they want to do is take strike action but the government has left them with no choice.
“Health secretary Steve Barclay needs to listen and engage with us about pay. If he can’t talk to us about this most basic workforce issue, what on earth is he health secretary for?
“The government could stop this strike in a heartbeat – but they need to wake up and start negotiating on pay.”
Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, has said: “Make no mistake, we are now in the fight of our lives for the very NHS itself. These strikes are a stark warning – our members are taking a stand to save our NHS from this government.
“Patients’ lives are already at risk but this government is sitting on the sidelines, dodging its responsibility to sort out the crisis that it has created.
“Ministers can’t keep hiding behind the pay review body. They know full well it does not address the desperate need to get huge numbers of NHS workers off the breadline.
“Fail to act now to avert these strikes and the blame will rest firmly at the government’s door.”
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, added: “Ministers are refusing to do the one thing that could prevent disruption – that’s start genuine talks about pay.
“Wages are too low to stop health workers quitting the NHS. As more and more hand in their notice, there are fewer staff left to care for patients. The public knows that’s the reason behind lengthy waits at A&E, growing ambulances delays, postponed operations and cancelled clinics.
“Threatened NHS strikes in Scotland were called off because ministers there understand higher wages and improved staffing levels go hand in hand. Unfortunately, the penny’s yet to drop for the Westminster government.”
What about talks?
Mr Barclay will meet unions representing striking ambulance teams in eleventh hour talks later on Tuesday, although the discussions are not expected to avert the demonstrations.
Mr Quince told GB News: “There are minimum service levels, which are negotiated at a local level called derogations between the unions and individual trusts.
“In some cases, with regards to nurses, that will happen at a national level. With ambulances, it is all happening at a local level.
“Those conversations are ongoing. We will meet the unions later today.
“But it’s actually at an individual ambulance trust level, those derogations are taking place. And I know that individual trusts are putting all sorts of contingencies in place.”
During another interview with Sky News, Mr Quince poured cold water on the prospect of a late deal being reached by urging the strikers to wait for their next pay review in April 2023, saying: “Our door is open to discuss with the unions anything relating to working conditions. What we can’t do is go back into reopening the pay award.”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak and his health secretary are reportedly facing increasing pressure from within their own party to scrap their hard-line opposition towards the wave of strikes that have beset the country this month and have been urged to compromise to prevent a repeat of the chaos in the new year.
Additional reporting by agencies