Ambulance workers in the UK stage their biggest strike in decades

Tens of thousands of ambulance workers in England and Wales went on strike on Wednesday, walking off their shifts and joining picket lines to demand pay rises and better working conditions in the biggest labor unrest to hit Britain’s emergency services in decades.

The walkout, an effort by three unions, comes as Britain faces weeks of industrial action as a growing cost-of-living crisis, fueled by double-digit inflation, grips the country. On Tuesday, nurses went on strike over pay that had not kept up with inflation, and rail and border control workers are expected to do the same this week.

In ambulance services, workers have raised the alarm over record delays for patients seeking emergency treatment, with paramedics citing staff shortages and burnout, as well as fears of arriving too late to help some callers.

These problems have been compounded by deep-rooted problems in the National Health Service, where a high level of staff vacancies has led to delays and long waiting times in hospital emergency rooms.

On Wednesday, ambulance services only responded to the most critical cases.

Ahead of the walkout, which was expected to involve more than 20,000 workers, some hospitals asked people to arrange their own transport to hospitals, including pregnant women going into labour. Patients requiring non-urgent care were advised to seek advice elsewhere, including by telephone or from GPs or pharmacists.

With Christmas and New Year celebrations underway, health leaders urged people to avoid risky behavior on a day when services would be stretched. “You don’t get so drunk that you end up with an unnecessary visit to A.&E,” said Stephen Powis, chief medical officer of NHS England, in an interview with the BBC, referring to accident and emergency departments of hospitals

Health service management said before the strike that there was “deep concern” about potential harm to patients at a time when the service was already under intense pressure.

“This is not something NHS leaders would say lightly, but some are now telling us they cannot guarantee patient safety tomorrow,” Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents service organizations in England.

The NHS planned to manage the outflows by calling in military personnel and volunteers, increasing staff in call centers and discharging patients from hospitals where possible to free up beds.

Unions representing ambulance workers blamed the government and called on political leaders to come to the negotiating table. Workers argue that a pay rise of about 4 percent proposed by a government review body amounts to a cut in real terms. Inflation in the country has soared to 11.1 percent in recent months, the highest in four decades.

“We don’t want patients to suffer in any way, shape or form,” Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union, told the BBC on Wednesday. “I have never seen such an abdication of leadership in 25 years of negotiation.”

In a letter to First Minister Rishi Sunak, NHS England leaders said that on health grounds “we have clearly entered dangerous territory”.

“We ask you to do everything possible to reach an agreed solution,” they said. “Otherwise, more members of the public will suffer unnecessarily.”

Mr. Sunak has described the industrial action as disappointing and has threatened to impose laws that would limit the reach of unions.

Despite concerns about the impact of the strikes, some people affected by delays in ambulance services expressed sympathy for the workers.

In north London, Robin Lockyer said on Wednesday morning as she walked to work that her father had been forced to wait seven hours for an ambulance after breaking his hip recently. “He’s 86 years old, it was really traumatic for him,” said Mr. Lockyer said. “But I don’t blame the ambulance service,” he added. “I blame the government.”

“The government is taking a strange position,” said Mr. Lockyer said. “And I think there’s going to be a lot more action.”

Saskia Solomon provide reports

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