Strike by ambulance workers to cause ‘extensive disruption’

NHS managers have been warned a planned strike by ambulance workers next week will cause “extensive disruption” to services, as health leaders and trade unions haggle over how they propose to cover 999 calls.

The NHS is braced for its most extensive industrial action for decades, with a second nurses’ strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Tuesday, followed by a walkout by ambulance workers including paramedics on Wednesday.

About 750 armed forces personnel are being brought in by the government to offset the impact of the strike affecting 10 ambulance trusts in England and Wales. Ambulance crews will be a mix of military and NHS staff.

In a letter to health managers on Friday, Sir David Sloman, NHS England chief operating officer, said the impact of the strike on the health service would vary geographically but considerable disruption was anticipated.

NHS leaders at the 10 ambulance trusts and trade unions are negotiating locally so-called derogations under which certain services — notably the most serious 999 calls — will be protected during the strike.

Sloman said in his letter to health managers: “Derogation discussions with trade unions are ongoing at a local level, therefore the impact upon services will vary across different ambulance services, but extensive disruption is expected.”

NHS England data showed that almost 15,800 inpatient and outpatient appointments were cancelled during the strike by nurses on Thursday that was organised by the Royal College of Nursing.

Sloman’s letter instructed health managers to put in place measures to ensure that all ambulances could hand over patients no later than 15 minutes after arriving at a hospital. It also asked managers to discharge patients where possible ahead of the industrial action to free up hospital beds.

Meanwhile unions were accused by government insiders of “playing games” by failing to quickly agree with NHS leaders how they plan to cover 999 calls during the strike by ambulance workers.

An ally of health secretary Steve Barclay criticised the lack of clarity just days before the strike that has been organised by the GMB, Unison and Unite unions.

He said Barclay was “very concerned that union leaders are playing games over strike day coverage for ambulance services — they are keeping health managers in the dark about what level of 999 calls they will respond to”.

The GMB rejected the claims by the Barclay ally, adding: “GMB representatives are in regular contact with local trusts on this matter.”

Sara Gorton, Unison head of health, said: “Ministers know emergency cover plans are being drawn up by ambulance employers, not unions.”

Meanwhile Rishi Sunak defended the government’s approach to nurses’ pay as “fair, reasonable and constructive”.

He highlighted how the government had implemented an independent review body’s proposal on NHS pay, which has provided nurses with an average increase of 4 per cent. The Royal College of Nursing has demanded a 19 per cent pay rise.

Passengers also face another day of rail disruption on Saturday, the last day of strikes this week by the RMT union that have brought large parts of the network to a standstill in the traditionally busy pre-Christmas period.

RMT leader Mick Lynch raised the prospect of a possible deal on pay and working conditions with the industry on Friday as he said a solution was “achievable”, although there are no dates for fresh negotiations.

Industry executives were struck by an apparent change in tone from Lynch, but cautioned they were not expecting to be able to put forward new offers imminently.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the government wanted a deal to be reached on rail strikes.

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