Ambulance strikes: ambulance services declare ‘critical incidents’ as thousands of workers walkout over pay

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Health Secretary Steve Barclay is urging the public to take “extra care”

Ambulance staff will stage two more strikes in January, union leaders have confirmed. Staff walked out on Wednesday 21 December amid a pay dispute with the government.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay met with union representatives on Tuesday afternoon, but discussions around pay were off the table as the government sought reassurances over strike cover, however he caused outrage after stating that strking staff had taken a “conscious decision” to harm the public. The industrial action affects ambulance services in London, Yorkshire, the North West, the North East and South West, however the union has confirmed that staff will still respond life-threatening and serious emergency calls.

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Unison’s newest strike action is set to take place on 11 and 23 January as negotiations over pay continue. General secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s only through talks that this dispute will end. No health workers want to go out on strike again in the new year. But accusing NHS staff of making a conscious decision to inflict harm on the public by taking action this week was not the health secretary’s finest hour.”

Almost all of the ambulance trusts in England are now at such a level of disruption that the environment might not be considered safe and patients might face harm. The majority of trusts have declared so-called ‘critical incidents’, with many stating that they were facing huge pressure before strikes even began on Wednesday.

Ambulance services and hospital trusts across the UK have declared critical incidents (Photo: PA)Ambulance services and hospital trusts across the UK have declared critical incidents (Photo: PA)
Ambulance services and hospital trusts across the UK have declared critical incidents (Photo: PA) | PA

‘Critical incidents’ declared

North East Ambulance Service, South East Coast Ambulance Service and the East of England Ambulance service all moved to critical incident status ahead of the strike action on Wednesday as staff work to respond to calls.

The services said they took the decision due to pressures including 999 call volumes and hospital handover delays, and that declaring the status allows them to instigate additional measures to protect patient safety.

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North East Ambulance Service operates across Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, County Durham, Darlington and Teesside; South East Coast Ambulance Service covers Brighton and Hove, East Sussex, West Sussex, Kent, Surrey and North East Hampshire; while the East of England Ambulance Service works in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

There are 10 individual NHS Ambulance Trusts in England. Critical incidents have been declared at:

  • Yorkshire Ambulance Service
  • North East Ambulance Service
  • South East Coast Ambulance Service
  • East of England Ambulance Service
  • South Central Ambulance Service
  • South Western Ambulance Service
  • North West Ambulance Service

A London Ambulance Service spokesperson said it declared a “business continuity incident” due to the “high demand across our 999 and 111 services”, adding: “In recent days, we have been taking up to 7,000 999 calls every day compared to a pre-pandemic busy day of 5,500 calls.

“We are doing everything we can to prioritise our sickest and most severely injured patients and would like to remind the public that if they need urgent medical advice that does not require an emergency ambulance to go to NHS111 online or call 111 for advice and support.”

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Neither East Midlands nor West Midlands Ambulance Services had declared critical incidents by 10am on Wednesday.

In addition to ambulance services, several hospital trusts have also declared critical incidents, including:

  • Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Nottingham and Nottinghamshire’s health and care system
  • Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust
(Graphic: Kim Mogg)(Graphic: Kim Mogg)
(Graphic: Kim Mogg) | Kim Mogg

North East Ambulance Service said it declared a critical incident on Monday afternoon as a result of “significant delays for more than 200 patients waiting for an ambulance, together with a reduction in ambulance crew availability to respond because of delays in handing over patients at the region’s hospitals”.

By declaring a critical incident,this allows the service to instigate several additional measures to protect patient safety. This includes seeking mutual aid, cancelling all training to allow for the redeployment of all clinical staff, no longer taking bookings for urgent non-emergency transportation and increasing third-party provider provision.

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Stephen Segasby, chief operating officer at the service, said: “Our service is under unprecedented pressure. Declaring a critical incident means we can focus our resources on those patients most in need and communicates the pressures we are under to our health system partners who can provide support. We are asking the public to call us only in a life-threatening emergency.”

Ambulance workers and paramedics are demanding better pay (Photo: PA)Ambulance workers and paramedics are demanding better pay (Photo: PA)
Ambulance workers and paramedics are demanding better pay (Photo: PA) | PA

Mr Segasby urged other patients to speak to their GP or pharmacist or use the NHS 111 website.

Meanwhile, Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust said its emergency department was “full with patients that need admission” but that there was “limited space to treat patients with life-threatening conditions and injuries”.

Unions accused of choosing to ‘inflict harm’ on patients

The Health Secretary has accused trade unions of making a “conscious decision” to “inflict harm” on patients as thousands of ambulance staff walkout on the first of two one-day strikes. Mr Barclay urged the public to take “extra care” after last ditch talks with the unions failed to stop planned industrial action by around 25,000 staff in England and Wales.

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As NHS leaders warned they could not guarantee patient safety, the unions angrily accused the government of putting lives at risk by refusing to engage with them on the issue of pay.

But writing in The Daily Telegraph , Mr Barclay said: “We now know that the NHS contingency plans will not cover all 999 calls. Ambulance unions have made a conscious choice to inflict harm on patients.”

Union leaders insisted there would still be cover for the most serious calls through a series of local agreements, with Unite general secretary Sharon Graham saying claims that many serious calls would receive no response were “misleading” and “at worst deliberately scaremongering” by ministers.

Meanwhile, Christina McAnea, the Unison general secretary, said if there were any deaths during the strike it would “absolutely” be the fault of the government. She told TalkTV: “They have been totally irresponsible. It’s completely irresponsible of them to refuse to open any kind of discussions or negotiations with us.”

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Around 600 armed forces personnel are being deployed to cover for striking ambulance staff, providing support for paramedics, although their role will be strictly limited. They are not due to be sent on critical emergency callouts or carry out clinical tasks and will not be allowed to break red lights or turn on blue lights when driving.

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