Ambulance workers to strike as tensions with ministers flare

Thousands of ambulance workers, including paramedics and call handlers, will walk out on strike again on Wednesday after tensions between ministers and trade unions flared over the risk to patients.

Business secretary Grant Shapps accused ambulance service unions of behaving in a way that was not acceptable in a “civilised society”, claiming they had failed to negotiate an agreed level of national safety with NHS employers.

Shapps’s intervention came a day after ministers and unions reported “progress” in talks to resolve a series of disputes over pay and working conditions, covering health, rail and schools.

Shapps claimed contingency planning for the ambulance strike in England and Wales had been “almost impossible” and put people’s lives at risk.

“I don’t think any civilised society should have a situation where we can’t get agreement to, for example, have an ambulance turn up on a strike day for the most serious of all types of ailments,” he said.

The GMB union, which represents many ambulance staff, issued a statement calling it an “extraordinary attack” by the business secretary.

“He surely knows that across NHS trusts, GMB members who care for the public every single day, work closely with employers to provide appropriate cover on strike days and have left picket lines to help out on urgent calls,” it said.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, another ambulance union, accused Shapps of mouthing an “utter lie”, saying there was no national agreement because the structure of services varied from one region to another.

Health leaders expressed concern about the impact of Wednesday’s strike. Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents NHS organisations, said with more staff expected to walk out than before Christmas, the health service was “in an even more precarious position”.

On Monday ministers met unions to discuss what Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, has called “reasonable and responsible” pay settlements, as the government’s position softened.

The cabinet discussed the strikes on Tuesday but government officials downplayed the prospect of the government sanctioning a new pay offer imminently.

In the meantime, the risk for Sunak is that disruption will intensify. The Trades Union Congress is planning to hold a “national campaign day” involving rallies across the country on February 1 after a meeting of several unions at the group’s headquarters in London on Tuesday.

Gary Smith, GMB general secretary, denied there were plans for a single day of co-ordinated strikes across the economy. “The Tories are trying to create a narrative around a de facto general strike, it’s nonsense,” he said.

Treasury insiders said any new public sector pay offers to unions would have to be found from within existing departmental budgets, even if the outlook for the public finances has brightened.

Sunak will be hoping to see a substantial improvement in these when chancellor Jeremy Hunt presents his first Budget on March 15, mostly coming from a lower cost of servicing UK government debt.

At current market prices, Hunt will also secure an improvement in the public finances of between £3bn and £5bn in 2023-24 from lower government subsidies for the energy bills of households and companies. This reflects a recent fall in wholesale energy prices.

The net saving of £3bn-£5bn would be enough to grease the wheels of any pay deal to end the NHS strikes, with a £1,000 one-off payment for 1.2mn health service workers in England costing £1.2bn.

But government officials expressed concern that energy prices are volatile, and stressed the need to demonstrate budgetary prudence following the disastrous “mini” Budget in September overseen by the then prime minister Liz Truss.

The Treasury said: “Falling wholesale energy prices will provide some relief to households and businesses, but it would be irresponsible to plan fiscal policy on volatile energy prices which are so significantly impacted by factors like Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and the weather.”

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