Fewer people call for ambulances on service’s biggest strike so far

Safety not thought to be affected despite up to 25,000 workers joining picket lines across England and Wales

Fewer people called for an ambulance on the service’s biggest strike day so far, during which up to 25,000 union members join picket lines across England and Wales to express their “disappointment” and “despair” over pay and staffing levels.

Up to 25,000 paramedics, 999 call handlers, ambulance drivers and technicians from the Unison and GMB unions staged staggered strikes against a below-inflation 4% pay deal on Wednesday. The industrial action covered most of England, except the east, and nearly all of Wales.

Unions agreed to provide “life and limb care”, meaning the most urgent category-one calls would be responded to, though cover varied by region.


Emergency services were understood to still be in a position to provide a safe service, with demand steady but calls down. One NHS trust source said there were no category-one calls waiting for response in their area but there were about 60 calls waiting from categories two and three, which include strokes and heart attacks.

More than 10,000 GMB union ambulance workers across nine out of 11 trusts in England and Wales have gone on strike for 24 hours, with major pickets staged, including in Lancaster, Nottingham, Middlesbrough and Brighton. From noon, they were joined for 12 hours by up to 15,000 ambulance staff and Unison members working for five services in England.

Staff were seen holding signs emblazoned with the slogan “from the frontline to the breadline” at pickets across the UK.

Lib Whitfield, GMB’s NHS lead for south England and a regional organiser, said the seven picket lines she visited across Kent were “really solid”. “There’s been a massive amount of support from the public, people coming down to the picket lines, food deliveries, doughnuts, it’s been overwhelming again.”

Thanks to carefully planned “response-capable” picket lines, staff broke their strike to answer emergency calls where required to ensure public safety, she said on Wednesday afternoon. “As far as we know at this stage that’s gone really smoothly.”

She added that the mood on the picket line combined hope, thanks to the scale of public support, with despair at the government. “They’re absolutely firm that they will continue to take strike action until they’re listened to. There’s a lot of disappointment.”

Workers she spoke to were fed up with understaffing preventing them from responding to calls because they are spending their entire shift in the ambulance queue with vulnerable patients, while dispatchers working in call centres were unable to send vehicles out. “These people work in these services because they care, can you imagine how traumatic that is for them.”

Those on lower pay bands said the cost-of-living crisis meant they were working overtime to pay their bills, or contemplating switching to supermarket work for the same salary but with shorter hours and less stress, she added.

NHS Providers said the NHS would be hit harder by the latest strikes than the one held in December as more staff, including call handlers, went on strike. The earlier action prompted leaders to warn of a spillover of intense demand the following day, which is expected to be repeated on Thursday.

Speaking to BBC World at One, the NHS Providers interim chief executive, Saffron Cordery, said there was disruption but ambulance demand had reduced, though pressure was expected to mount over the course of the day as “that’s what we saw last time round”. She added that staff from other services were stepping in to pick up less urgent category three and four calls.

She said the NHS had stepped up contingency planning, but that if strikes continued they would “seriously deplete capacity to carry out services on a routine basis”.

She said most NHS Providers members wanted a progressive settlement, in which the lowest paid were given the biggest increase, and that 5% was a “starting point”, with many backing a rise of over 10%.

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust, told BBC World At One that it was hard to pinpoint the effect of the December strike, but ambulance journeys fell by about 22% compared with the same day the previous week – though there was a drop of more than 40% in London and north-west England.

NHS England urged patients to seek emergency care if they needed to during the strikes, noting that it had been “preparing extensively” for industrial action and winter.

The strikes will be followed by further industrial action by nurses on 18 and 19 January, and another ambulance strike on 23 January.

Rachel Harrison, the GMB national secretary, said the union cancelled another planned strike over Christmas to thank the public for their “incredible support” and to give time for the government to discuss pay.

“Ministers have dithered and postured, wasting valuable time. To end this dispute, GMB needs a concrete offer to help resolve the NHS’s crushing recruitment and retention crisis. The public expects the government to treat this dispute seriously – it’s time they got on with it,” she said.


Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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