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'Desperate' ambulance workers' strike will impact patient safety

Ambulance workers across England will strike during December after unions announced that a large number of members are to take industrial action over pay shortages and staffing levels. They will join nurses and other healthcare workers to protest against poor working conditions in a health service undoubtedly in the most compromised state it has ever been.
 

 Unison has suggested that the strikes are expected to involve not only paramedics but also thousands of 999 call handlers, ambulance technicians and other ambulance service staff throughout the country.

While the vote was just short of the 50 per cent threshold in many trusts, consensus among more than 10,000 ambulance workers in favour of standing on the picket line will of course cause further delays to emergency treatment for the critically ill.

Unions claim that essential emergency cover will still be available, but with the strikes due to take place before Christmas, many patients will likely suffer because of the industrial action during the busiest month for the ambulance service and the NHS. This comes at a time of unprecedented problems for the NHS, with some ambulance crews already experiencing delays at hospital of up to 40 hours.

GMB union has said 'no one in the health service takes strike action lightly and the announcement shows just how desperate they are'. The huge increase in emergency treatment requests since 2010 has caused increasing pressure on workers, which the GMB says puts patient safety at risk. They report that ambulance workers are leaving in droves to join better paid, less stressful occupations because of the ongoing difficulties.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay told Sky News that he 'deeply' regrets ambulance staff striking and that 'it is in nobody's best interests as winter approaches'. There is a possibility that the army will be called in to drive ambulances, although the numbers on standby are relatively small and this would not significantly impact the situation if strikes occur.

These issues are set to get worse until the Government addresses serious problems that have been flagged for months. Most pressing are significant social care issues, which mean that patients cannot be discharged to suitable care outside of hospital. With hospital capacity severely compromised because of this, ambulances and corridors act as inappropriate spaces for patients waiting to be admitted.  This reduces the numbers of available ambulances yet further and adds considerable stress to the workers.

Ambulance calls have risen 10 times more than the numbers of ambulance workers, and have doubled since 2010. The increase in demands for emergency care, caused by an aging population, GP shortages and cuts to preventative care, have brought the NHS to crisis.

At the recent patient safety conference 2022  run by the Health Service Journal, which reports on NHS policy and management, a keynote address was entitled 'Why aren't we learning from past mistakes?' Why indeed.
The London ambulance service for one has raised the alarm about the danger of cuts and underfunding for at least 10 years with little meaningful response from the government.

We now face a critical winter of widespread shortage of doctors, GPs, ambulance workers, nurses and midwives. The additional, almost inevitable industrial action by ambulance crews can only see patient safety further compromised.

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