Ambulance strikes: Steve Barclay urges people to ‘use common sense’

Health secretary says system will be ‘under severe pressure’ as thousands of workers in England and Wales strike

A UK government minister who has refused repeatedly to engage in pay negotiations with striking health workers has urged the public to “use their common sense” on a “very difficult day”.

The health secretary, Steve Barclay, has accepted the health system will be “under very severe pressure today” as thousands of ambulance workers, paramedics and others in England and Wales went on strike on Wednesday, leaving the NHS unable to respond to many 999 calls.

He said the government’s capacity to maintain its contingency respone to the strikes was “obviously constrained” and blamed the unions for not clarifiying if all category two calls – conditions that include heart attacks or strokes – will be triaged.


“We’re saying to the public to exercise their common sense in terms of what activities they do, being mindful of those pressures that are on the system,” Barclay told Sky News. But he refused to engage on pay talks even if patients died as a result of the strikes.

Sharon Graham, the leader of the Unite union, suggested the government should be advising people to use their common sense in order to ease pressure on the NHS “365 days a year”.

“There are 130,000 vacancies in the NHS, there’s 3,000 vacancies within the ambulance service,” she told LBC radio. “It’s like, even in normal play, there [is] strike action happening anyway. We are in a crisis in the NHS. If we do not get around the table and start these negotiations and seriously look at how retain and recruit staff, we have got a very serious situation – not for one day, but for 365 days a year.”

The Unison general secretary, Christina McAnea, said it was “utter nonsense” and a “complete and utter lie” to suggest unions had made it almost impossible for the government to make contingency plans. “I think they’re covering up for the fact that he waited until the day before the strike to even ask us about contingency planning.”

Barclay said on Wednesday that ministers did not have to accept the pay recommendations from the independent pay review bodies. Criticising the media while speaking on three different broadcast programmes, Barclay first told Sky: “When we don’t accept in full the recommendations we’re criticised for doing so – on this occasion we have accepted them in full,” he said.

He later told BBC Breakfast: “And indeed in the past the government hasn’t always accepted in full the recommendations, on programmes like this ministers have been criticised for doing so.”

Doubling down on his refusal to engage in pay talks, Barclay said: “We’re already three-quarters of the way through this year so what you’d be saying is, go all the way back retrospectively to April to unpick what has been an independent decision by the pay review body.

“But we’re already now under way in terms of next year’s pay review process, the remit letters have gone out. Obviously that body will then consider the changes in inflation, the other issues that have been raised, all as part of the normal process of looking at next year’s pay, so we should look forward.”

Thousands of paramedics and other personnel in NHS ambulance services across England and Wales will strike for between 12 and 24 hours on Wednesday, leaving the NHS unable to respond to many of the 999 calls it usually receives.

Today is obviously going to be a very difficult day with the health service,” Prof Sir Stephen Powis told the BBC. “But we’ve been working very closely with the unions to ensure that emergency services for life-threatening conditions are maintained, and that will include stroke and heart attacks.

“There are increased clinicians in call centres to ensure that the right response goes out to the right incident.”

He said strokes fell into the higher end of category 2 cases, so clinicians would determine what response was needed, and he advised people to dial 999 “as usual” if they had a life-threatening condition.


Aletha Adu Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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