Ambulance workers in the UK are walking out on Monday for their biggest strike yet since trade unions kicked off a series of protests against pay in the National Health Service.
For the first time, workers from all three unions — Unison, Unite and the GMB — will strike on the same day, prompting warnings for the public to only call 999 in life threatening situations.
The action will involve around 15,000 Unison ambulance workers and another 5,000 NHS colleagues in Liverpool, the union said.
“Higher wages would stop experienced employees leaving for better paid jobs and encourage more people to come and work in the NHS,” Unison General Secretary Christina McAnea said. “With more staff, ambulance response times would improve, and patient waits for treatment shorten.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said on Sunday that it was “hugely disappointing some ambulance workers are continuing to take industrial action”.
“I have had constructive talks with unions about this coming year’s pay process for 2023/24, and am keen to continue talking about what is affordable and fair,” Mr Barclay said.
Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, on Monday accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of being in “hiding” during the dispute over pay for NHS workers.
She told LBC radio: “The Prime Minister is missing in action.
“It's been five weeks since Unite last went out on strike in terms of the ambulance service and we have had not one offer from the government. There has been not one meeting that has been about 2022-23 pay and, quite frankly, we're almost negotiating with the government on the airwaves.
“So, therefore, what I'm calling on today is for Rishi Sunak to come out of hiding, to do his job as the leader of this country and start negotiating on this particular dispute.”
She added: “They've gone on the airwaves talking about constructive meetings, I don't know what meetings they're in because they're certainly not the same ones I'm in — I can't put 'constructive meetings' on a ballot form. I need them to come with an offer.
“There's no point Steven Barclay having any more discussions, he hasn't got the authority, it would seem — and any other negotiation the CEO of the company would come to the table.
“Rishi Sunak is the CEO of this employer. He needs to come to the table and let's do a deal and get these people back to work.”
She told Sky News on Sunday the government must offer a double-digit pay increase to striking NHS staff to end the action.
“We’ve got the employer, in this instance the government, who will talk about anything, but they won’t talk about pay,” she said.
Unions representing NHS workers accuse the government of imposing years of real-terms pay cuts, resulting in mass vacancies that endanger patients.
Ministers point to extra money earmarked for health services and say this year’s pay rise was determined by an independent review body.
The government has been accused by the unions of “demonising” emergency workers with Rachel Harrison, National Secretary at the GMB Union, saying this was another reason for the escalation of action.
Ministers have proposed a law imposing minimum service levels during strikes in essential areas such as health care. However, Ms Harrison said ambulance delays were actually lower on strike days.
Still, Britons were advised to be cautious at the weekend and into Monday to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the health system.
“It’s really important that people stay warm and look after themselves, have their medications and seek medical help if they need it without ignoring their symptoms,” said John Martin, chief paramedic at the London Ambulance Service.
NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “As with other ambulance strikes, the message to patients remains that it is vital to come forward and seek emergency care if needed.
“This includes calling 999 for life-threatening emergencies as well as using 111 online for other health needs where you will receive clinical advice on the best next steps to take.
“People should also continue to use local services such as pharmacies and general practice as they normally would which aren't impacted by strike action.”
Further strikes are planned in the coming weeks by nurses and other NHS workers.
February 6 is likely to see the biggest strike action the NHS has ever experienced, with thousands of nurses and ambulance workers due to stage walkouts if no deal has been reached by then.