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NHS join the party as its workers threaten strike action

By Charlie Rattigan
01 December 2022

By Charlie Rattigan

A winter of discontent is looking like a real possibility as Britain is set to be further disrupted by strike action over the festive period. Following the announcement of rail and mail strikes across December and the new year, Unite and GMB unions announced on Wednesday that ambulance workers had voted for industrial action and possible strikes before Christmas.

In the statement, Unison said that more than 80,000 NHS workers had voted to go on strike over pay and staffing levels. Action will take place nationwide in five of England’s ten ambulance trusts: London, Yorkshire, the North East, North West and South West.

On pay, the government are not budging on their offer of a flat rate increase of £1,400 for most NHS workers, while the Royal College of Nursing says its members have suffered a 20% fall in income since 2010. As with the rail situation, the government faces the prospect of further escalating nationwide industrial action if they don’t adjust their position on public sector pay. Health chiefs expect the “unacceptably poor” situation to deteriorate over winter.

To pile more pressure on the government, news broke today that both ambulance response times and A&E waits have hit their worst levels on record in all parts of the UK in recent months. Worryingly, only Croydon and Carlisle are meeting the target of medics arriving within 18 minutes after “category two” calls for a serious condition, such as a stroke or chest pain.

The pandemic (for obvious reasons) has clearly taken its toll, most notably in regions outside of the Southeast of England. For example: patients with a suspected heart attack or stroke in Bristol or Lincolnshire wait over an hour on average for an ambulance to arrive, while those in Oxford or Basingstoke wait just 19 minutes. As The Times put it, people face a “postcode lottery” when phoning 999.

With no “backstop” of deflecting the issue for the long waits on Covid-19 patients, how are the government aiming to combat the issue? In September, they published a new “Plan for Patients” paper. Included is a £500 million care package for people leaving hospital, which in theory should free up beds and reduce ambulance waiting times. There will also be an increase in the number of call handlers to 4,800 in NHS 111 and 2,500 in 999 by the end of the year.

This seems sensible in principle, but many industry groups feel the plan does not go far enough in dealing with the urgent concerns. The British Heart Foundation stated they felt it was too thin on detail and “does not deliver the fully funded workforce plan that is urgently needed.”

Then there is still the issue of resolving the strikes. If the government continue to hold the line of public sector pay restraint being “avoidable” in times of tight national finances, a resolution seems to be miles off. If they do go ahead, waiting times will only worsen, creating further strain on NHS services.

With planned industrial action across key industries, the British public faces a bleak winter ahead.