by Helen ROWE / Joe JACKSON
LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — UK ambulance workers readied to walk out on Wednesday, a day after nurses staged their second stoppage, in a widening dispute with the government which is refusing to cede to above-inflation demands on pay.
The series of walkouts has intensified, with industrial action by railway workers and passport control officers threatening to ruin festive holiday getaways.
On Wednesday, ambulance staff including paramedics and call handlers go on strike, prompting warnings from healthcare leaders.
London’s biggest hospital group said “people giving birth will need to plan how they come into hospital”.
“Where people are planning any risky activity, I would strongly encourage them not to do so,” said junior health minister Will Quince.
“We never want to alarm people but we have reached the stage where our leaders feel it’s necessary to say they cannot guarantee patient safety,” said Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation which represents services including ambulance trusts in England and Wales.
“We’re entering into a very dangerous time and this is why we’re upping even more our call to the government and to the trade unions to try to find a way of solving this dispute and helping us get through the winter,” he told the BBC.
At least three ambulance services declared critical incidents due to “unprecedented” pressure, saying they would prioritize treatment for those most in need, such as life-threatening cases.
Thousands of members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland took to picket lines on Tuesday, just five days after the first strike in its 106-year history.
Unions representing both National Health Service (NHS) nurses and ambulance workers have threatened further stoppages in the new year if the government keeps refusing to discuss pay.
Late Tuesday, the nurses’ representatives gave the government two days to agree to their salary demands to avert further strikes after festive holiday.
“There are two days for us to meet and begin to turn this around,” said Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.
“By Friday, we will be announcing the dates and hospitals for a strike next month.”
– ‘Get a grip’ –
Employees across the UK economy are demanding salary rises in the face of decades-high inflation — currently running at nearly 11 percent — which is spurring the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.
But the government insists it must stick to more modest increases for public sector workers recommended by independent pay review bodies.
“The best way to help them and help everyone else in the country is for us to get a grip and reduce inflation as quickly as possible,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told a watchdog panel of MPs.
On the picket line outside a central London hospital opposite parliament, Mamta Pun, 25, said Sunak’s stance on the pay dispute was “a slap in the face for all healthcare staff, the general public and patients”.
The intensive care nurse at the St Thomas’ Hospital, where former premier Boris Johnson was treated in intensive care for Covid-19, said she and her colleagues finished shifts “anxious, scared, terrified” because of their workload.
– ‘Cold shoulder’ –
The RCN has also criticized Sunak’s government for its pay stance and accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of adopting a “macho” negotiating style during brief meetings held recently.
It has warned that nurses would take wider industrial action next month if the government “keeps giving our nursing staff the cold shoulder as they have to date”.
“It’s really unfortunate, that come January, we will see more hospitals being involved and striking and that means more nursing staff involved,” Cullen said.
Ministers plan to draft in 750 military personnel to drive ambulances and perform logistics roles to mitigate the impact of those strikes.
Despite the government’s dogged insistence that it will not negotiate over pay, polls indicate the majority of people support the nurses’ stance, and to a lesser extent other workers walking out.
YouGov polling published Tuesday showed two-thirds of Britons support striking nurses, with similar support for ambulance staff (63 percent).
However, people were more divided on other industries such as rail workers — whose walkouts 43 percent supported while 49 percent opposed — and postal workers, where the split was 49 percent versus 43 percent.
© Agence France-Presse