Ambulance staff in England and Wales go on strike as patients warned over long waits for emergency calls

NHS England says some people may be asked to make their own way to hospital

The strike will see around 25,000 staff, including paramedics, call handlers, drivers and technicians from the Unison and GMBunions take part in staggered walkouts across a 24-hour period. None of the workers will strike for longer than 12 hours, with call handlers expected to walk out for six-hour periods.

Unison has balloted around 15,000 of its members who are striking in London, Yorkshire, the North West, North East and South West. More than 10,000 GMB ambulance workers are also expected to strike, with their ambulance services covering the South West, South East coast, North West, South central area, North East, East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Wales.

Major pickets will be staged in Lancaster, Burnley, Liverpool, Lincoln, Nottingham, Leicester, Cardiff, Wrexham, Brighton, Eastbourne, Medway, Stoke, Donnington, Wakefield, Bradford, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough, the GMB union said.

Thousands of ambulance workers across England and Wales are striking today (Photo: PA)

Workers across the ambulance services and some NHS Trusts have voted to strike over the government’s imposed 4% award, which the union says is another massive real terms pay cut.

It comes after talks on Monday (9 January) between unions and government ministers failed to avert the strike action, with industrial action also in the pipeline by teachers and rail staff. Nurses are preparing to strike next Wednesday and Thursday (18 and 19 January), and a further ambulance strike is scheduled for 23 January.

Rachel Harrison, GMB National Secretary, said:  “Ambulance workers across England and Wales will go on strike for the second time today. GMB cancelled a planned strike over the Christmas period to say thank you to the public for their incredible support.

“It also allowed time for the government to talk to us about pay, but Ministers have dithered and postured, wasting valuable time. To end this dispute, GMB needs a concrete offer to help resolve the NHS’s crushing recruitment and retention crisis.

“The public expects the government to treat this dispute seriously – it’s time they got on with it.”

Patients told to ‘expect delays’

Health leaders have warned patients to expect delays during the action due to additional stress on the system, as today’s strike is larger than one held in December.

Patients can expect waits for 999 and 111 calls to be answered and fewer ambulances will be on the road. NHS England has told patients to continue to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies but to use 111, GPs and pharmacies for non-urgent needs. It said some people may be asked to make their own way to hospital, but urged people to seek medical advice from 111 or 999 before doing so.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Today’s ambulance strike is an unwelcome return to unnecessary disruption and comes at a time when the NHS is already under huge pressure from Covid and flu.

“While we have contingency plans in place, including support from the military, community first responders and extra call handlers, to mitigate risks to patient safety, there will inevitably be some disruption for patients with fewer ambulances on the road.”

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

No blanket agreement has been reached on responding to category 2 calls, with unions and trusts agreeing locally which category 2 calls will receive a response during the strike.

The West Midlands Ambulance Service said it had agreed a response to all category 1 calls plus other life-threatening cases such as heart attacks, strokes, difficulty in breathing and maternity cases. Transport services will also cover patients undergoing renal dialysis, cancer treatments, palliative care and emergency scans, it said.

Elsewhere, Ben Holdaway, director of operations at the East Midlands Ambulance Service, said teams had worked to maximise the number of staff, but he anticipated a “much slower” response than usual.

He said: “Where possible, our 999 control rooms will carefully assess and prioritise an ambulance response for those who need it most, and this may only be where there is a threat to life.”

South Central Ambulance Service said the strike affected around 200 workers and will mostly disrupt its non-emergency patient transport services, while Yorkshire Ambulance Service said all its services will be impacted, including frontline emergency ambulances and 999 call handling, non-emergency patient transport and NHS 111. Ambulances will still be able to respond during the strike, “but this will only be where there is an immediate risk to life”, it added.

In the North West, the ambulance service there urged the public to keep ambulances for people with life-threatening injuries and illnesses, and in London, Daniel Elkeles, the service’s chief executive officer, said it had an agreement that a maximum of 50% of the staff will be taking industrial action at any one time and will come off picket lines if call-answering times are too long.

On Tuesday (10 January), the government introduced new legislation to Parliament for “minimum safety levels” when workers go on strike. Business Secretary Grant Shapps told the Commons the ambulance strike on Wednesday “still does not have minimum safety levels in place and this will result in patchy emergency care for the British people”.