NHS urges public not to get drunk during ambulance strike

Everything you need to know about the ambulance strikes

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GMB, Unison and Unite unions are taking industrial action that will see paramedics, call handlers and emergency care assistants in England and Wales stop work in a long-running dispute over pay.

The unprecedented crisis comes after months of warnings over stress, burnout and lack of capacity, which has jeopardised patient safety.

And it follows the second day of industrial action by nurses, also over pay.

With unions and ministers unable to thrash out an 11th-hour deal, the public were urged not to get drunk or take unnecessary risks and to check on the elderly to try to relieve pressure on the NHS.

Meanwhile, around 1,000 troops will be deployed to cover striking workers. Soldiers, sailors and aviators who have never driven ambulances before have been drafted in.

They will not drive ambulances on blue lights or be allowed to run red lights, but are set to provide support for less serious call-outs.

It comes as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak yesterday told public sector strikers to let the Government try to bring down inflation.

He told MPs on the liaison committee: “It’s difficult for everybody because inflation is where it is. And the best way to help them and everyone in the country is for us to get a grip and reduce inflation as quickly as possible.

“We need to make sure the decisions 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, an explosive session of the Commons health committee heard that 4,232 hours were lost in a day due to “devastating” delays caused by queues of ambulances waiting outside clogged-up hospitals.

Dr John Martin, president of the College of Paramedics, said figures from NHS England equated to 176 ambulances and exposed an emergency worsening by the week. He said: “Our members are really struggling because they can spend the whole of their shift at a hospital waiting to hand over a patient.

“They are worn out, they are tired, they want to get back to being good paramedics.”

Today’s strike is likely to cause extensive chaos. Health Secretary Steve Barclay called on unions to ensure patient safety, saying: “It’s important the unions honour the commitment they’ve given to safeguard both life-threatening responses and emergency responses.

“We haven’t actually had that confirmed in the practical arrangements at each trust.”

Unison official Jon Richards and Unite’s Onay Kasab will be among senior officials manning picket lines alongside rank-and-file staff.

In a forlorn plea, Health Minister Will Quince advised the public to avoid putting themselves in peril, like playing contact sport, to minimise the danger of injury to themselves or others.

He said: “There will be disruption and I would strongly encourage them not to [take risks].” And NHS medical director Prof Stephen Powis even urged people to drink responsibly as the 74-year-old health service steels itself.

He said: “People can help by taking sensible steps to keep themselves and others safe and not ending up in A&E – whether that is drinking responsibly or checking up on a family member or neighbour who may be vulnerable.”

Disruption will vary across regions, with ambulances still being dispatched for Category 1 calls – those deemed the most life-threatening.

But medical assistance for those that are serious, but not judged to be immediately lifethreatening, could be significantly delayed.

Some NHS trusts have agreed local exemptions for specific incidents, but pregnant women in late-stage labour will not be prioritised.

It also means those hurt in falls or suffering other non-life-threatening injuries, particularly the elderly, may not receive treatment at all.

NHS trusts have block-booked taxis to ferry people to A&E but stricken patients have also been told to make their own way if possible.

Although the service effectively shuts down today, disruption is expected to last for up to three days. And unions warned there was potential for the dispute to escalate into the new year.

Members of the GMB union are already set to stage a second walkout on December 28.

Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, said: “Our hope is action causes a rethink at Cabinet level and they are prepared to bring this to a close.”

General secretary Christina McAnea added: “The public are with us but that can change. But if we are not paying, rewarding or valuing staff [well enough] the exodus just gets worse.

“The Government has to do something about this.”

Services hit are in the NorthWest, North East, Wales, East and West Midlands, Yorkshire, South West, South Central and South East Coast.

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