Union ranks swelling as Shropshire ambulance service staff stage strike
Striking ambulance service workers in Shropshire say their membership ranks have grown since they last downed tools before Christmas.
Members of the GMB took to the picket line at the Donnington ambulance hub in Telford again on Wednesday where they were joined by members of other trades unions in solidarity with their cause.
Jacqueline Murphy, a GMB rep at Donnington said: "We have definitely gained membership and we are gaining new members from the non-unionised employees every day. We had three new people join us last night in support of the strike.
"They are joining unions because they are finding the same issues and are becoming more and more disappointed with the actions of the Government and are actively wanting to join the strike."
GMB members on the picket line were disappointed with a statement by business secretary Grant Shapps who accused the unions of failing to provide minimum levels of service.
Ms Murphy said: "We have responded to several category one calls, and this time Unison crews are operating normally alongside non-unionised crews.
"Our dispute is not with West Midlands Ambulance Service, it is with the Government and what they have done to the NHS. Managers have been bringing us cups of tea."
Other people on the picket line were keen to point out that the strike does not just involve ambulance drivers but also maintenance crews, and training bursaries that do not cover the costs of living while people are in training.
"People are actually being put off joining the service because the bursaries are not enough to cover three years of training," one said.
The strikers had plenty of beeps from passing traffic and a loud show of support from a Shropshire Fire & Rescue Service crew while the Shropshire Star was with them. But they have had some people shouting "get back to work!" one said.
Support was total from members of Shropshire & Telford TUC who joined the picket line with a Unison and TUC banner.
Kath Perry, the local TUC treasurer and Unison member, said: "We are fighting for an NHS that is going down the drain."
Fellow Unison member Andy Brown, a delegate of the trades council, said: "We want to fight for workers' rights, it is really important that we are here to show our support. The Government is employing divide and rule tactics and they have no idea how ordinary people live."
Protestors pointed to recently announced excess mortality figures which they say can be blamed on issues in the NHS of emergency departments that are packed, and medically fit patients unable to be discharged into social care.
Paramedic Craig Dower, from Newport, has been in the ambulance service since 2004 and became a fully qualified paramedic in 2007.
Mr Dower said: "When I joined we were more an emergency service, now we are picking up the slack left by declining numbers of GPs. We are also responding to social issues, a lot more calls to do with mental health, drugs and alcohol.
"We are trained to deal with those but we are picking up the pieces more. It's because of decades of underfunding, with no spare capacity in the system."
Mr Dower added that levels of stress-related sickness in the service were "going through the roof" as they are finding themselves unable to respond to calls as quickly as they should.
"If an elderly person falls, we have an hour to get to them before problems set in, and we would arrive, pick them up and give them a cup of tea. But if someone is lying on the floor and can't get up for over an hour it can mean a longer stay in hospital," he added.
West Midlands Ambulance Service has spoken out to assure the public that it will continue to respond to incidents where this is a threat to life, despite the strike action.
The trust says it respects the right of trade union members to take such action or demonstrate their support of strike action, which us in response to a national pay dispute with the government.
WMAS emergency services operations delivery director, Nathan Hudson, said: “We have had productive discussions with our staffside colleagues to agree that ambulances will respond to:
"The most urgent calls such as cardiac arrests and where a crew request immediate back up at the scene of a case
"Other life-threatening cases such as heart attacks, strokes, difficulty in breathing and maternity cases
“In addition, staff in our non-emergency patient transport service will continue to convey vulnerable groups such as patients undertaking renal dialysis, cancer treatments, palliative care, emergency scans within the strike period timeframe.
“Only call 999 if critically unwell or there is risk to life. Ambulances will be dispatched where clinically appropriate.
“If you need medical help or advice, go to NHS 111 online (www.111.nhs.uk), your local GP or pharmacy.”
Up to 25,000 ambulance workers across England and Wales were on strike on Wednesday, including paramedics, call handlers, drivers and technicians from the Unison and GMB unions. They were taking part in staggered strikes across a 24-hour period.
It comes as 14 health unions, representing more than a million NHS staff, said they will not submit evidence to the NHS pay review body for the next wage round "while the current industrial disputes remain unresolved".
Instead, the unions, which represent ambulance staff, nurses, porters, healthcare assistants, physiotherapists and other NHS workers in England, called for direct pay talks with ministers.
NHS Providers has warned the NHS will be hit harder by Wednesday's strike than one held in December, as more staff, including call handlers, go on strike.
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 walking out, 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.
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, though it urged people to seek medical advice from 111 or 999 before doing so.
Speaking on Sky News, Health Secretary Steve Barclay was asked whether he agreed with comments by Business Secretary Grant Shapps that striking paramedics were being "reckless".
Mr Barclay said: "If there are delays to ambulances, then it is concerning in terms of our ability to get that care.
"It is clearly a concern as to the impact it has on patient safety."
Asked about pay talks to break the current deadlock, Mr Barclay said he does not "think it is right" to "retrospectively" go back to April when it comes to reviewing this year's pay offer to NHS staff.
It comes amid reports he is considering backdating any 2023/24 pay rise, due to be finalised in the spring, to this month in order to boost the current year's settlement offer.
Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme if he is considering "reopening" the current year's negotiations, Mr Barclay said: "The purpose of the meeting on Monday was to look at this coming year's pay review body and the evidence going in.
"But, of course, it was an opportunity to listen to the trade unions in terms of their points on last year's settlement.
"I don't think it is right to go all the way back to April and retrospectively look at April when we're already under way in terms of this year's pay review body.
"But, of course, the unions made representations about that and what the Prime Minister said at the weekend is nothing is off the table."
Mr Barclay also urged people to use their "common sense" regarding what activities they do during a strike.
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.
Mr Barclay condemned unions for failing to agree national minimum safety levels during strikes - something that would be fixed by legislation presented to Parliament on Tuesday.
Unison's head of health Sara Gorton told the PA news agency that unions have been wanting to talk with ministers for more than a decade about putting minimum legal staffing requirements in place, without success.
The Government's new focus on the issue appears to be an attempt to vilify health workers and a "distraction from the job in hand", she said as she stood on the picket line outside the London Ambulance Service (LAS) headquarters in Waterloo.
She said the situation within the NHS seems to be "worsening day by day" and the "ball is in the Government's court" to fix it.
She added: "If we are going to get a resolution to the current dispute and the wider staffing crisis across the NHS, then what's going to be needed is for the Government to commit to having those direct talks."
Asked about pay, Jon Richards, assistant general secretary at Unison, said the Government tone had changed since Christmas.
"I think we've seen a chink of light, to be honest. That's something we're pleased about," he told BBC Breakfast.
"The Government have started talking about pay, so, yes, we see some progress, but we haven't had an offer - we haven't had anything in writing yet and we need to have that before we can make progress."
Meanwhile, Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told Times Radio there had been "a state of crisis" in the NHS for the last month and problems going back several years.
He called for perspective, adding: "Yes, (the strike) will be disruptive, and actually, in a way, what we're more concerned about is not what happens on the day, but we know that it creates disruption in the following days.
"We talk about a rebound effect because there is a pent-up demand, all sorts of problems occur in the system later."