Ambulance staff would require a definite commitment from ministers on pay rather than just a promise of talks to call off their planned strike on Wednesday, according to a union leader who said trust had largely broken down with the government.
Christina McAnea, the general secretary of Unison, one of three unions involved in the strike by ambulance crews in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said even a commitment to discuss pay, thus far refused by the health secretary, Steve Barclay, would now be insufficient.
“It has to be a very firm commitment,” McAnea told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. “A change in attitude would definitely be welcome. But they would have to come up with something that was more than just ‘let’s talk about this’ for us to call off the strike on Wednesday.”
Barclay is expected to contact unions to urge fresh talks to avert further strikes, and the government’s Cobra emergency committee is due to meet again on Monday to coordinate the response to their impact.
On Sunday, Barclay called on ambulance trusts to ensure sufficient coverage to guarantee patient safety during Wednesday’s strike, which will come a day after another strike by nurses, also over pay. Barclay said unions needed to “meet their obligations” for emergency cover.
But McAnea said such was the poor level of service normally that efforts by hospitals to clear beds and ensure people could be removed from ambulances promptly meant the situation could be better than usual on Wednesday.
“When they come forward with what they see are their minimum staffing levels, in some cases they’re at the same, if not higher, than you would have on any day of the week,” she said.
“I’ve been going to visit our members and they’re telling me that they used to do maybe nine or 10 calls in a shift. Now they’re lucky if they do three. That’s not because they’re not working hard. That’s because they’re stuck in ambulances caring for patients outside A&E departments.”
Another union leader representing ambulance crews, Sharon Graham, of Unite, said Barclay would be responsible if patients suffered. “It’s Steve Barclay who is holding the country to ransom,” she told the Mirror. “He will have to carry the can if patients suffer because he thinks this is his Thatcher moment.”
She said Barclay was in for a “rude awakening” if he continued to refuse to negotiate on pay, saying: “The unions are not going to blink first.”
The ambulance strikes, involving control room staff and other team members as well as paramedics, have been called by Unison, Unite and the GMB unions over a demand for a bigger pay increase than that decided earlier this year by the NHS pay review body.
Barclay and other ministers have insisted they are unwilling to go beyond the offer already made, which gives an average increase of 4.75% and a guaranteed minimum rise of £1,400 a year. The only possible movement could be through an offer of extra one-off payments.
While ambulance staff will respond to life-threatening situations, people with less critical injuries or ailments are likely to have to find another way to reach hospital.
McAnea said her members did not wish to be taking industrial action. She said: “I’ll say again, none of our members want to be on strike. This isn’t something they chosen to do. But the government has been completely intransigent. We’ve been calling on them for weeks and weeks to talk to us about this, to actually sit down and have a proper discussion about how we try and resolve this dispute. And they have adamantly refused to do that.”