Ambulance workers across England are likely to strike before Christmas, adding to the strains on the NHS as up to 100,000 nurses also prepare for industrial action, unions said on Tuesday.
Unison, announcing the results of a nationwide ballot, said that more than 80,000 NHS workers out of some 400,000 it represents had voted to go on strike over pay and staffing levels. Thousands of 999 call handlers, ambulance technicians and paramedics would be called out in walkouts next month, it added.
However, industrial action will initially be confined to a handful of ambulance trusts. Their staff have faced some of the most difficult working conditions recently, with crews left waiting for hours outside hospitals to discharge patients. The union failed to win a wider mandate for strike action across the NHS workforce, falling short of the 50 per cent turnout threshold in most of the NHS trusts where it balloted.
“The decision to take action and lose a day’s pay is always a tough call. It’s especially challenging for those whose jobs involve caring and saving lives,” said Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary, adding: “But unless NHS pay and staffing get fixed, services and care will continue to decline.”
The result will come as a relief to ministers, who maintain that it is not affordable for the government to improve on its current offer of a flat rate pay increase of £1,400 for most NHS workers. This amounts to a 4.75 per cent increase in the NHS wage bill and represents a big real-terms pay cut, with the latest data showing inflation running at 11.1 per cent, but it is relatively generous to the lowest-paid workers.
However, the government still faces the prospect of escalating industrial action across both the NHS and other areas of public services, with anger simmering over a long-running erosion in public sector wages.
The Royal College of Nursing, which has won a mandate for strikes at more than half of hospital trusts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, set out details on Tuesday of the locations that would be involved in its first two days of action in December. These include Great Ormond Street and Alder Hey children’s hospitals, cancer centres in London and Liverpool, and many other leading hospitals.
The RCN said up to 100,000 staff would take part at half the locations where it had a mandate to act, with strikes set to escalate in January unless the government agreed to enter pay negotiations.
Meanwhile other unions representing NHS workers — including the GMB, Unite, the Royal College of Midwives and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists — are set to announce the results of their separate ballots soon.
The interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “As with the upcoming industrial action by the RCN on Thursday 15 and Tuesday 20 December, trust leaders will do everything they can to minimise disruption for patients.
“We are reiterating our plea to both the government and union leaders to get around the table and find an agreed solution as soon as possible to avert strike action.”
The Department of Health and Social Care could not immediately be reached for comment.