Striking ambulance workers in England and Wales manned pickets on Wednesday, escalating a pay dispute between the government and scores of public sector workers.
A spate of business disruptions is causing misery across Britain in the run up to Christmas, as railway workers and passport control officers will hamper festive bank holiday outings as the government promises to resist rising wage demands.
Workers across the UK economy are demanding pay rises over decades of inflation – currently at nearly 11 per cent – which is fueling the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.
“We’re not being paid enough for what we earn,” 24-year-old paramedic Kirsten Reid told AFP in Crawley, southern England. “Second, patient safety is a big issue… our response times are shocking and need to be improved.”
ALSO READ: British nurses stage unprecedented strike
“We do 12-hour shifts with 30-minute breaks, but they’re rarely 12-hour shifts. Usually we get overrun,” she added.
The government and unions swapped blame for a potential loss of life as a result of the strikes, as health-care leaders warned against straining an already-cracked system.
Thousands of members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) picket lines in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Tuesday, five days after their first strike in its 106-year history.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay accused unions of making a “conscious choice” to “harm” patients in an article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
– “Immense Pressure” –
GMB union national secretary Rachel Harrison hit back, calling his comments “offensive”.
“Ambulance workers are seething at such a crude, insulting attempt to divert attention from the ongoing government chaos in the NHS,” she said.
Unions representing both nurses and ambulance workers in the state’s National Health Service (NHS) have threatened more walkouts in the new year if the government continues to refuse to talk about pay.
About a dozen employees picketed outside an ambulance station in Crawley.
“My members are striking today for fair pay. At the end of the day, they’ve had a 20 per cent pay cut in the last 10 years and can no longer afford to go on with it,” GMB union representative Lib Whitfield told AFP.
Striking workers stood behind a banner reading ‘Our NHS is under siege’ outside the West Midlands Ambulance Services center in Longford, in central England.
ALSO READ: UK train strikes begin wave of strikes into Christmas season
As passing ambulances honked their horns in support, union rep Steve Thompson called on the government to “wake up and recognize that this situation is serious”.
Adrian Boyle, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said the UK’s emergency health system has been under “immense pressure” over the past three years.
– ‘Cold shoulder’ –
He told Times Radio that 2021 was “the worst we’ve ever seen” when there were delays in getting patients from ambulances to hospital due to a lack of beds.
The government insists it must stick to modest increases for public sector workers recommended by pay inspection bodies, which it describes as independent.
“The best way to help them and everyone else in the country is for us to get a grip on inflation and reduce it as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said of workers’ demands for wage increases.
But the RCN has warned that nurses will take more widespread industrial action next month if the government “continues to give our nurses the cold shoulder”.
Nurses in Scotland – who have not joined the two most recent strikes elsewhere – are set to announce strike dates early next year after overwhelmingly rejecting the Scottish Government’s latest salary offer, the RCN said.
ALSO READ: UK workers strike as inflation eats away at profits
Ministers have drafted 750 military personnel to drive ambulances and handle logistical tasks in an attempt to mitigate the impact of Wednesday’s ambulance strike, which will affect almost all areas of England and Wales.
Despite the government’s insistence not to negotiate, polls show most people support nurses and, to a lesser extent, other workers who are dropping out.
The YouGov poll released on Tuesday showed two-thirds of Brits support striking nurses and 63 per cent support ambulance staff.