Talks over ambulance strike fail to break deadlock

Health Secretary Steve Barclay met unions on Tuesday afternoon but declined to discuss pay.

Jane Kirby
Tuesday 20 December 2022 16:29 GMT
(James Manning/PA)
(James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Thousands of ambulance workers and paramedics are preparing to strike on Wednesday after talks between the Government and unions failed to address the issue of pay.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay met union representatives on Tuesday afternoon but discussions around pay were off the table as the Government sought reassurances over strike cover.

Thousands of nurses are on strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Tuesday while ambulance staff will walk out in England and Wales on Wednesday.

Unison’s strike is running from noon until midnight on Wednesday while the GMB action runs from midnight tonight to midnight on Wednesday, and Unite’s from midnight tonight to midday on Wednesday.

After the meeting with unions, Mr Barclay tweeted: “I hugely value the work of our NHS staff & it’s disappointing some union members are going ahead with further strike action – my door remains open to further talks. Unions have called for industrial action to cause maximum disruption & inevitably this will have an impact.

“My priority remains patient safety. We have contingency plans in place & I have met with ambulance union reps today urging them to honour their commitment to provide responses to life-threatening emergency calls.”

He added that union demands “are unaffordable during these challenging times but, as I’ve said before, I’m open to engaging with unions on how to make the NHS a better place to work”.

Unions have urged the Government to make an offer on pay, suggesting an agreement could be reached.

Onay Kasab, from Unite, warned after the meeting that ambulance strikes would escalate unless the Government agreed to pay negotiations.

He said: “I went in full of hope, unfortunately I’ve come out very, very disappointed, because all the Secretary of State wanted to talk about is what’s been done already, the discussions at a local level to make sure that emergencies are covered tomorrow.

“The Government have got to engage on pay because these strikes will escalate otherwise, that is the reality.

“Our members are absolutely determined to win not just the pay battle but to win the battle to save the NHS.”

It comes as NHS leaders have warned they are unable to keep patients safe during strikes, while NHS England bosses urged people not to get drunk and end up needing emergency care.

Health minister Will Quince also urged people to think again about contact sports and avoid running on icy roads during the ambulance strike.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, and NHS Providers, which collectively represent all NHS organisations, have written to Rishi Sunak requesting an end to the deadlock.

The letter to the Prime Minister said: “This isn’t just about pay but about working conditions; many (workers) have said they are doing this because they no longer feel able to provide the level of care that their patients need and deserve.

“In the context of more than 130,000 vacancies across the NHS, the elective backlog growing to over seven million people and urgent and emergency care, mental health, community and primary care services all under extreme pressure, this concern is more than understandable.

“With less than 24 hours to go until the ambulance strike, there is deep worry among NHS leaders about the level of harm and risk that could occur to patients tomorrow and beyond.

“We’ve rarely heard such strong and urgent expressions of concern from those running our hospitals, ambulance services and other vital health services.

“We urge you to do all you can to bring about an agreed solution, otherwise more members of the public will suffer unnecessarily.

“We understand your position and the wider economic factors that your Government will be taking into consideration.

“But on health grounds alone, it is clear that we have entered dangerous territory and we hope this warning from NHS leaders should serve to focus minds in Government that a swift resolution to this damaging dispute is needed, and that opening negotiations on pay is the way to achieve that.”

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme, Mr Taylor added: “We never want to alarm people but we have reached the stage where our leaders feel it’s necessary to say they cannot guarantee patient safety, they cannot avoid risks as these strikes unfold.”

Speaking during his first appearance at the Commons Liaison Committee on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Sunak said he was standing by the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies, which he said had taken into account “forward estimates of inflation”.

Addressing striking workers, Mr Sunak added: “I’ve acknowledged it is difficult, it’s difficult for everybody, because inflation is where it is.

“And the best way to help them and help everyone else in the country is for us to get a grip and reduce inflation as quickly as possible.

“And we need to make sure that the decisions that we make can bring about that outcome. Because if we get it wrong and we’re still dealing with high inflation in a year’s time, that’s not going to help anybody.

“I don’t want to see that, I want to see things get back to normal, and that’s why having an independent pay process is an important part of us making those decisions and getting them correct.”

Earlier, Downing Street acknowledged that Mr Sunak had not chaired Cobra meetings on the crisis or met the unions.

At a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday the disputes with NHS nurses and paramedics were not raised, with discussions instead focusing on plans for the King’s coronation in May.

Calls requesting an ambulance are split into categories, with category 1 being the most life-threatening, such as cardiac arrest, while category 2 covers conditions like stroke, heart attack and sepsis.

Unite leader Sharon Graham said cover would be provided for most serious calls.

“The unions have agreed to provide cover tomorrow for life-threatening emergencies (category 1 cases) and serious cases like heart attack and stroke (category 2 cases).

“That has been agreed at a host of local NHS trusts.”

She accused the Government of “misleading the public on this and at worst deliberately scaremongering” through suggestions that many serious calls would have no response.

North East Ambulance Service said staff would cover category 1 calls “and calls assessed by a clinician and deemed to be at risk of life and limb”.

It said talks were ongoing and further announcements would be made.

Half of control room staff have been exempted from industrial action there, while patient transport staff will be exempted to convey people to appointments for dialysis and chemotherapy.

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