Ambulances may not get to all emergency calls during strikes, says Barclay

Health secretary says it is not yet certain if staff in England and Wales will respond to calls from people who have had heart attacks

The health secretary, Steve Barclay, has said there will be a shortfall of ambulances in England and Wales when workers go on strike this month because the government’s contingency plans will not be able to cover all emergency responses.

Unions have said they will tend to life-threatening incidents – known as category-one emergency responses – including during their largest strike for 30 years on 21 and 28 December.

But it is not yet certain whether they will respond to category two emergency calls from people who have had heart attacks, strokes, epileptic seizures or burns.

Barclay will meet unions to discuss whether they will be able to respond to such calls, claiming at the moment they will not tend to category three emergency callouts including falls.

Barclay said it was important that category three and four calls were still covered because it could place “huge pressure” on the NHS.

But admitting the government’s contingency plans were not foolproof he said: “Of course, we can look at what contingency plans we can put in place but they are never going to cover the same amount as having 3,000 ambulances on the day, which is roughly what we have on a typical day. There is a risk … we can’t get ambulances to people.”

Barclay said he was “open to talks with the trade unions” and later added: “It’s not just about pay, there’s many issues that affect staff, the quality of the NHS, tech, of staff and staffing levels.”

The GMB, Unison and Unite unions are coordinating industrial action across England and Wales after accusing the government of ignoring pleas for a decent wage rise.

The strike will happen a day after members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) stage their second day of strike action, also over pay.

The shadow levelling up secretary, Lisa Nandy, said it was not enough for Barclay to say his “door is always open” for talks with the unions as it “sounds like he’s got no agency himself”.

She told Sky News: “If [Labour] were in government we would be moving heaven and earth to avoid these strikes. What does he think his actual job is? He hasn’t spent a single second in negotiations since he started. He’s got ambulance workers saying we don’t want to be on strike, these strikes can be avoided if he actually did his job. The problem isn’t militant workers it’s a militant government.”

The GMB said more than 10,000 ambulance workers across nine trusts in England and Wales would strike including the South Western, South East Coast, North West, South Central, North East, East Midlands, West Midlands, Welsh and Yorkshire ambulance services.

The Conservative party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, was criticised this week for saying nurses should call off their strikes and abandon their pay demands because it risked playing into the hands of the Russian president, who he said wanted to fuel inflation in the west.

Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary, said it was a “new low” for the government to “use Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK”.

Unite said more than 1,600 of its members at the West Midlands, North West and North East ambulance service trusts would join the strike.


Aletha Adu Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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