Ambulance strikes: NHS crisis 'threatens patient lives more than walkouts'

Calls about strokes and suspected heart attacks may not be responded to during the strike

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Patients’ lives are “put at risk every single day” due to the crisis engulfing Britain’s National Health Service, a union boss said as she hit back at the government over its attitude to the impending action.

The spat between unions and Conservative ministers erupted on Wednesday as up to 25,000 ambulance workers across Wales and most of England walked out over a pay dispute.

The industrial action, which will include some emergency call handlers, will mean “category 2” alerts ― which include strokes and suspected heart attacks ― could have assistance denied or delayed.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the government and unions negotiated late into the night on what services would still run during the action, but admitted the arrangements in place were concerning.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps outraged trade unions by saying they were “putting lives at risk” by refusing to implement nationwide minimum levels of ambulance service.

But Rachel Harrison, national secretary of the GMB union, which represents paramedics, said the upheaval in the NHS poses a greater threat to people’s lives than the strikes do.

“Lives have been put at risk every single day, not because of these strikes. I absolutely disagree with what Grant Shapps has said,” she told Sky News.

“I can guarantee you the GMB local teams and representatives across the country have worked around the clock with local employers to make sure that emergency procedures are in place.

“On the last strike day, what we actually saw was paramedics, emergency care assistants and others leaving the picket lines to go and attend to emergencies ― our members do not want to put lives at risk.

“What they’re saying to us is lives are being put at risk every single day regardless of the strike and that is one of the issues.”

Mr Barclay sought to promote the government’s anti-strike legislation as an antidote for some of the disruption caused during strikes. No 10 says the aim of the bill is to balance the rights of workers to strike with the rights of the public to services. However, opposition MPs have ripped apart the proposed law, calling it a distraction tactic employed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government.

Mr Barclay said while agreements with unions had been reached on a local level before Wednesday’s walkout, there was no national consensus on a minimum level of care in place.

This scenario would be prevented, he said, if the bill was made law.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said similar legislation is in place in European countries, including France, Spain and Italy.

He said unions had agreed that ambulance workers will respond to life-threatening incidents, but added: “It’s clear that there will be disruption in terms of other calls.”

He also said there was a danger of less serious calls escalating if treatment was significantly delayed.

“It is still concerning,” he said. “We were working with the unions until midnight last night on the arrangements that were put in place.”

He said the bill would not be about forcing individual paramedics off the picket line, instead being “much more about the behaviour of the unions, much more about where the minimum safety levels would be".

“At the moment what we have is an ad-hoc system of local agreements that leaves us vulnerable … so it’s important we have more certainty as to what is the minimum service level,” he added.

MPs will be able to scrutinise the proposals over coming months, he said.

Mr Barclay’s meetings with nurses’ and ambulance workers’ unions on Monday failed to provide a breakthrough in the deadlock. The Royal College of Nursing says it will push ahead with strikes on January 18 and 19.

The Health Secretary was due to hold talks with representatives of a doctors’ union on Wednesday. Junior doctors are being balloted by the British Medical Association on whether they back strike action in a dispute over pay. The BMA has already said it will stage strikes for 72 hours in March if the ballot comes back in favour of such action.

Mr Barclay said he does not use private health care and is treated on the NHS. His admission came after Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to say if he uses a private GP in an interview with the BBC.

Nurses on strike in the UK - in pictures

Updated: January 11, 2023, 10:15 AM