"If we don't fight, there will be no NHS'
Unite rep and paramedic Kelvin Hurd speaks out as Unite ballots ambulance members for strike action
Ambulance workers are among the many thousands of NHS staff who are now in a fight to save the health service – and protect their livelihoods – amid an unprecedented cost of living and NHS funding crisis.
The ambulance workers, which include call handlers and paramedics, are furious over the 4 per cent Agenda for Change pay award that falls far short of inflation, which has now exceeded 12 per cent.
Unite strike ballots for nearly 3,000 ambulance workers in England opened last month, and are due to close on November 30.
Unite rep and paramedic Kelvin Hurd is among those now being balloted, and he tells UniteLive that he and his colleagues have never been under so much pressure.
“I’ve been a paramedic for nearly 20 years now, and the service is totally unrecognisable compared to what it used to be,” he said. “People just can’t take it anymore – we’re losing staff all the time.”
What used to be the occasional stressful time at work has now become the norm, Kelvin said.
“We’ve got 16-hour night shifts with no meal breaks. We’re standing for hours and hours on end with critically ill patients who we aren’t able to offload into hospital.
“And because we have to wait with these patients until they’re admitted, we can’t respond to other calls. We get shout outs for Cat 1 (the highest level of emergency) calls but we can’t respond to them and we know others can’t respond to them either – you feel totally helpless.”
Kelvin, who works in Hull, reports that with other services within the NHS crumbling, he fears there will be no end in sight for the pressures he and other ambulance workers are now facing.
“GPs aren’t able to see patients, so they call us instead. There’s virtually no mental health service to speak of so there’s no one else to call if they need that sort of help. You’ve got clinics closing, community hospitals closing – it’s just endless. We’re beyond crisis now.”
This crisis in the NHS, Kelvin added, is being compounded by the cost of living crisis – for both patients and staff. He noted that because so many more people are unable to feed themselves adequately and heat their homes, they become chronically unwell.
“These are often the poorest in society – they are the ones who need the most support but are receiving the least,” he said. “They are the ones who end up calling us when their conditions get worse – it’s the perfect storm.”
Just as patients are suffering from the cost of living crisis, so too are ambulance staff, especially those who are only just starting their careers now.
“We’re lucky to live in a relatively inexpensive part of the country but even here, it’s becoming unaffordable to live. It used to normal to be able to eventually afford to get a mortgage but now getting on the property ladder is out of reach for most.”
This, he said, is having a huge impact on recruitment and retention.
“Last month we had three newly qualified paramedics, and all three left by the end of the month,” Kelvin explained. “We’re losing staff all the time. They don’t want to leave; they have to leave if they want to keep a roof over their heads. They simply cannot afford to work for the NHS.”
With so many staff leaving, it places an even greater strain on those ambulance workers left behind.
“Shifts are left uncovered. There’s so much more to do and there’s fewer us of left to do it.”
More than anything, Kelvin said this is why NHS staff need a decent pay award that keeps up with the cost of living.
“When they made the 4 per cent pay announcement earlier this year, it was an unbelievable insult. We’ve had ten or more years of pay cuts and at this moment of crisis, they deliver yet another real-terms pay cut.
“We’re in this situation today because of years of underfunding and privatisation by stealth. When the service is run for profit, you’ve got less to spend on patient care. When there’s less to spend on patient care, there’s more people going to A&E and that translates into a full blown crisis. The NHS is literally no longer functioning.”
Kelvin hit out against the government, which has claimed it cannot afford a pay rise for NHS workers.
“Refusing to give NHS staff a proper pay rise is a political choice,” he said. “They can easily tax the excess profits of incredibly profitable companies like Shell, BP, Amazon. When a single company makes nearly enough profit in one month to pay for an above-inflation pay rise for all NHS workers, then the solution is simple.”
Kelvin called on all Unite members in health who are being balloted over strike action now and in the coming months to vote and make sure their voices are heard.
“There is no alternative,” he said. “We have to take action. It is totally up to the government to prevent us from striking. We have to fight for the NHS –for the families and the communities we serve – because if we don’t fight there will be no NHS.”
If you are a Unite member working in the ambulance service, you can find out more about voting in Unite’s strike ballot here. Remember the ballot closes for ambulance workers in England on November 30. You can also find out about other upcoming Unite NHS strike ballots on the same page.
By Hajera Blagg