Britain braces itself amid the biggest strike by ambulance workers in decades
Tens of thousands of ambulance workers across England and Wales went on strike on Wednesday, going their shifts and joining pickets to demand pay rises and better working conditions in the biggest labor unrest to hit Britain’s emergency services in decades.
The strike, an effort by three unions, comes as Britain sees weeks of labor strikes across multiple sectors as a deepening cost of living crisis, spurred by double-digit inflation, sweeps the country. On Tuesday, nurses went on strike over pay that has not kept pace with inflation, and rail workers and border control workers are expected to do the same this week.
In the emergency services, workers have sounded the alarm over record delays in patients seeking emergency treatment, and paramedics have pointed to staff shortages and burnout, as well as fears of being late to help some callers.
These problems have been exacerbated by deep-rooted problems within the National Health Service, where high levels of vacancies have resulted in backlogs and long waits in hospital emergency departments.
On Wednesday, emergency services only responded to the most critical cases.
Before the strike – which was expected to involve over 20,000 workers – some hospitals asked people to arrange their own transport to hospitals, including pregnant women going into labour. Patients who do not require urgent care have been advised to seek alternative advice, including over the phone or from family doctors or pharmacists.
As Christmas and year-end celebrations get underway, health leaders urged people to avoid risky behavior on a day when services would be expanded. “Don’t get so drunk that you end up having an unnecessary visit to A.&E.,” Stephen Powis, the NHS medical director for England, said in a BBC interview, referring to the accident and death toll hospital emergency departments.
Health service management said before the strike there was “deep concern” about possible harm to patients at a time when the service was already under severe pressure.
“This is something NHS leaders would never say lightly, but some are now telling us they cannot guarantee patient safety tomorrow,” said Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents the service’s organizations in England Tuesday.
The NHS planned to deal with the strikes by bringing in military personnel and volunteers, increasing call center staffing and, where possible, letting patients out of hospitals to free up beds.
Unions representing rescue workers blamed the government and called on political leaders to come to the negotiating table. Workers argue that a wage increase of about 4 percent proposed by a state review board would amount to a cut in real terms. Inflation in the country has risen to 11.1 percent in recent months, the highest in four decades.
“We don’t want patients to suffer in any way,” Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union, told the BBC on Wednesday. “In 25 years of negotiations, I have never experienced such a leadership role.”
In a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, NHS England leaders said health concerns “it is clear we have entered dangerous territory”.
“We urge you to do everything possible to reach an amicable solution,” they said. “Otherwise more citizens will suffer unnecessarily.”
Mr Sunak called the industrial action disappointing and threatened to introduce legislation that would limit the reach of unions.
Despite concerns about the impact of the strikes, some people affected by delays in emergency services expressed their sympathy for the workers.
In north London, on Wednesday morning on his way to work, Robin Lockyer said his father had been forced to wait seven hours for an ambulance after recently breaking his hip. “He’s 86 – it was really traumatic for him,” Mr Lockyer said. “But I don’t blame the emergency services,” he added. “I blame the government”
“The government is taking a strange attitude,” said Mr. Lockyer. “And I think there’s going to be a lot more action.”
Saskia Solomon contributed to the coverage.