Ambulance workers have announced a series of fresh strikes including one next month that was already predicted to be the biggest day of stoppages in NHS history.
The 10 new dates announced by the Unite union in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will coincide with strikes already outlined by the GMB union, which also represents ambulance staff. They include 6 February, when up to 40,000 nurses from the Royal College of Nursing will also be on strike in what is set to be a day of massive disruption for the health service.
There are fears services could grind to a halt with non-urgent operations cancelled to help emergency departments cope with staff absences.
Before Unite ambulance workers joined the action, Saffron Cordery, the interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “It could be the biggest day of industrial action the NHS has ever seen.”
The general secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, said care would be taken to protect patient safety.
Speaking to the BBC podcast Political Thinking, she said: “Nobody wants lives to be lost. And we are really careful irrespective of the lies … that’s been said by some ministers … that we had proper minimum cover because that is something that’s really important to us. But I have to say, lives have been lost now and so something has to be done.”
Unite’s ambulance workers will already walk out next Monday as the dispute with the government remains deadlocked.
Graham added in a statement: “Rather than act to protect the NHS and negotiate an end to the dispute, the government has disgracefully chosen to demonise ambulance workers.
“Ministers are deliberately misleading the public about the life and limb cover and who is to blame for excessive deaths. Our members faithfully provide life and limb cover on strike days and it’s not the unions who are not providing minimum service levels.
“It’s this government’s disastrous handling of the NHS that has brought it to breaking point, and as crisis piles on crisis, the prime minister is seen to be washing his hands of the dispute. What a disgrace. What an abdication of leadership.”
The newly announced strike action will involve Unite’s members in the north-west, north-east, east Midlands, West Midlands, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Unite said that as with previous strikes, its representatives would be working at regional level to agree derogations to ensure emergency “life and limb” cover will be in place during the action.
Other derogations will ensure that patients needing lifesaving treatment, such as renal care and cancer treatment, will be transported to their appointments, said the union.
A Unite official, Onay Kasab, said: “The resolution to this dispute is in the government’s hands. This dispute will only be resolved when it enters into proper negotiations about the current pay dispute.
“The government’s constant attempts to kick the can down the road and its talk about one-off payments, or slightly increased pay awards in the future, is simply not good enough to resolve this dispute.”
Unite gave details of when its members employed by different ambulance trusts would be striking.
West Midlands: 6 and 17 February and 6 and 20 March. North-east: 6 and 20 February and 6 and 20 March. East Midlands: 6 and 20 February and 6 and 20 March. Wales: 6 and 20 February and 6 and 20 March. North-west: 6 and 22 February and 6 March and 20 March. Northern Ireland: 26 January and 16, 17, 23 and 24 February.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, called on the government to intervene.
He told BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme: “We need the government to be pragmatic, to be creative. I understand that there’s industrial relations issues right across the public sector, but we’ve got to look at the fact that we have to find ways of recruiting and retaining our staff and we’ve got to have a solution that gets us through this, because as I say, this is uncharted territory, this level of coordination – more and more days of strikes.
“Everybody wants to get to a situation where next winter, for example, we don’t have the same level of crisis, but we will not do that unless we are able to make inroads into that very large number of people who are sick in the community.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “Ambulance workers do an incredible job and it is disappointing some union members are going ahead with further strikes when the NHS is already under huge pressure.”