Patient safety “cannot be guaranteed”, NHS bosses have warned, as ambulance workers in England and Wales strike today (Wednesday, December 21). People are being asked to take “extra care” and to use services wisely during the industrial action by only dialling 999 in the case of a life-threatening emergency.
Unions have said that life-threatening callouts will be responded to over the next 24 hours but warned that some urgent calls, for example a fall at home or late-stage labour, may not be answered. NHS England said that emergency care will continue to be provided.
It comes at a time of immense pressure for paramedics and other ambulance staff - response times are already twice as long as they were two years ago, with eight out of 10 major ambulance services declaring “critical incidents”.
No industrial action is taking place in Scotland and Northern Ireland and there will be no strikes in some parts of England including the east of the country along with the Isle of Wight. Elsewhere, it is likely there will be “major disruption” as paramedics, call handlers, emergency care assistants and technicians stage a mass walkout.
It is understood that around 750 armed forces staff are being drafted in to cover the strikes, although their role will be limited - they will provide clinical care or be sent out on call-outs involving critical care.
The industrial action by ambulance workers comes after two days of strikes by nurses in December over pay and conditions. Further strikes have been threatened for January unless talks with the government and union leaders go ahead.
Are ambulance workers striking in my area?
Members of GMB, Unison and Unite unions will strike in England and Wales on December 21. These are the ambulance services affected:
- North East Ambulance Service
- Yorkshire Ambulance Service
- North West Ambulance Service
- West Midlands Ambulance Service
- East Midlands Ambulance Service
- South Western Ambulance Service
- South Central Ambulance Service
- South East Coast Ambulance Service
- London Ambulance Service
- Welsh Ambulance Service
Why are ambulance workers striking?
Ambulance workers are asking for a pay rise above inflation - although not a precise figure - and a plan for recouping lost earnings over the years. The strike is also taking place over conditions - long waits for ambulances after an emergency 999 call as well as queues of ambulances waiting outside A&E to offload patients have become a daily occurrence.
Rachel Harrison, national secretary of the GMB Union, said ambulance staff were “tired of spending all day in an ambulance outside a hospital with a patient” because of delays in handing over patients to A&E. She said they often didn’t know whether patients would "still be alive" when they reached them after a callout, adding: “We’ve been raising these issues for years and [have been ignored].”
Health secretary Steven Barclay met union representatives on Tuesday afternoon (December 20) but there were no discussions around pay, only what plans were in place to provide care during the strike.
What do I do if I need help during the ambulance workers strike?
Patients who are seriously ill or injured, or whose lives are in danger, are being advised by the NHS to call 999 despite the industrial action. For all other healthcare needs, the NHS is advising people to contact NHS 111 online or via the NHS 111 helpline, or to contact their local GP or pharmacy.