'Look at the bigger picture'
Striking Unite ambulance workers speak out as ambulance strikes in England and Wales continue
Thousands of ambulance workers, Unite members, carried on their fight for fair pay and for the future of the NHS this week, as they took their third day of strike action on Monday (February 6).
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham joined ambulance members on the picket line in Cardiff, where she urged both the UK and Welsh governments to come to the table with a reasonable offer.
For all their determination, Unite members on strike were keen to highlight that they would rather be in work.
“It’s quite emotional really,” said Unite rep and paramedic Tace Richards (pictured), speaking from the picket line. “We really just want to be doing our jobs, but we’re at the point now where we’ve got no other choice.”
Tace said he was proud of the widespread public support he and his colleagues have received, adding that even management has fully supported them.
“I see the strike as a means to an end,” he explained. “I’m just fed up with having to apologise to patients for taking so long to get to them, for hospitals being so full that we can’t offload patients.”
Tace, who’s worked in the service for the last eight years, says the pressures have never been this bad.
“It’s even worse now than during the pandemic,” he told UniteLive. “Every year we’ve become accustomed to winter pressures, but now the winter pressures come and they don’t let up at all. It’s as though it’s just one long, unending winter. We aren’t able to attend to patients who are phoning 999, because there’s just not enough beds in hospitals to offload all our patients. It’s draining. It’s hard. I don’t see an end to any of it.”
Tace said he and his colleagues have been hit hard by the cost of living crisis, which makes their fight now all the more urgent.
“I have to do all the overtime I can get now just to get by,” he said. “For the first time ever in my life I’ve had to spend on my credit card and haven’t been able to pay the full balance the next month. And that debt just accumulates. I personally know colleagues that have had to use food banks.”
Tace said he doesn’t accept arguments from the UK and Welsh governments that there isn’t enough money for a decent pay rise for staff. The UK government has so far refused to even discuss pay, while in Wales, the government offered a mere 3 per cent extra, with half of the rise being non-consolidated.
“The offer that the Welsh government has put forward is just insulting,” he told UniteLive. “It’s especially insulting given the hundreds of millions of pounds they are spending on agency staff. Of course there will always be a need for agency staff because of staff sicknesses and the like but what’s happening now is they’re block booking agency staff because they haven’t got nurses to fill the vacant roles because the NHS just doesn’t pay well enough.
“Surely they can pump that money back into the workforce instead of paying agency staff a lot more money to do the same job as anybody else.”
While Tace has been in the service for nearly a decade, Unite member and EMT Emma Roberts joined the ambulance service just over a year ago. Before, Emma worked as an HGV driver and later a transport planner.
“I obviously used to earn a lot more money in my previous jobs, but it’s not always about the money,” she explained. “As an HGV driver there was a lot of lone working – it’s great now that I get to work with people, and meet lots of different people.”
As much as Emma said she enjoys the work she does – she hopes to become a paramedic eventually – she explained how some aspects of the job shocked her.
“I wasn’t expecting to be sat outside hospitals, sometimes for the entire shift. It angers me that this is happening – all we want to do is help our patients but we can’t. It’s very frustrating.”
Like Tace, Emma said she was very disappointed with the Welsh government’s pay offer.
“Talking to people today on the picket line, I’d heard the offer would amount to something like an extra £20 a month. Well £20 extra a month isn’t going to go very far when people are having to spend more than £300 a month on gas and electricity alone.”
Emma urged the government to “look at the bigger picture”.
“I know so many young people who are eager to join the service but because of the low pay, it’s not an option. There’s no incentive. If we had better pay, it would encourage more people to work for the NHS, and with more staff, hospitals would have more capacity so that we could offload our patients and attend to more emergencies.
“It’s that simple – we’re fighting so that we can provide better care for our patients.”
On the latest day of strike action on Monday (February 6), Unite announced further strike dates for Welsh ambulance workers in an escalation of the union’s industrial action. Unite members employed by the Welsh Ambulance Service will strike on February 20, 21 and 22.
Commenting, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “I have visited Ambulance Service picket lines in Wales today and our members are telling me loud and clear that the new pay offer from Welsh Government is not acceptable. Unite is therefore escalating its industrial action”.
“Without a decent consolidated pay rise, the staffing exodus afflicting NHS Wales will continue, and so will the current crisis”.
“Unite is entirely focused on fighting for our members and for the future of the NHS. Unite’s Welsh Ambulance Service members will continue to receive the union’s total support.”
By Hajera Blagg
Pics by Mark Thomas