'We can't afford to let the NHS sink'

Unite ambulance workers speak out after latest strike action

Reading time: 9 min

Widespread public support for the latest Unite ambulance strikes was apparent from the start – as cars and lorries relentlessly honked their horns driving past a picket line in Chorley in the early hours of Monday morning, the taxi driver who dropped off your UniteLive correspondent likewise offered his solidarity.

“I hope you guys win it,” he said. “You’re standing up for what’s right.”

Thousands of ambulance workers, Unite members, took another day of strike action in England and Wales on January 23, which was preceded by a previous strike day in December and one more additional day of industrial action in Wales earlier this month.

The ambulance workers aren’t just fighting for a proper pay rise — which has been a long time coming after more than a decade of real-terms wage cuts and amid an unprecedented cost of living crisis — but they’re also standing up for a service that is on the brink of total collapse.

The atmosphere at the picket line in Chorley in the North West of England was defiant as dozens of ambulance workers from the area came to have their voices heard. They were joined by their leader, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham (pictured below), who issued a clarion call to prime minister Rishi Sunak.

 “It’s an absolute disgrace that in the fifth richest economy in the world, we have our NHS workers out on strike because they are not getting paid properly,” she said. “Rishi Sunak, do the right thing, come back to the negotiating table and put an offer down for these workers.”

Cost of living

The cost of living crisis has hit colleagues hard, Unite rep and ambulance worker Shabir Elahi (pictured below) said.

“We have colleagues who literally have no money at all from the 24th till the 27th of the month when they get paid,” he explained. “They’re eating pot noodles because they can’t afford proper food. Now that Aldi is paying £11 an hour, we’ve got so many people leaving to work for Aldi. They leave to work for all sorts of unrelated jobs because the pay is simply better. That’s the reality.”

Unite member and paramedic Tanya (pictured below) also reported struggling with the cost of living.

“I live on my own and so I’ve got to pay the whole mortgage myself,” she said. “I’ve recently remortgaged and my energy bills are through the roof. Before I had a bit of extra money to treat my nieces or save but now I’m living paycheque to paycheque.”

Many of the ambulance workers UniteLive spoke to said that real-terms pay has decreased in lockstep with ever-growing workloads.

Unite member Harry Hopkins (pictured below), who’s been a paramedic for the last year, said he was inspired to join the service by his uncle, who is also a paramedic.

“It’s really amazing hearing from my uncle how much has changed over the years,” Harry told UniteLive. “He said you used to have time to clean the vehicles, do all the station checks and clean the station, and even have time to cook a fry up before you get your first job for the day. Now, you barely have time to make a brew before you’re out the door.”

Full-blown crisis

With less and less time, staff and resources throughout the NHS, ambulance workers are under increasingly unsustainable amounts of pressure.

Unite rep and paramedic Shaun Tierney, who’s been in the service for over three decades, says the problems facing the NHS now are unprecedented.  

“We’ve seen stressed times over the years – we’ve come in and out of winter pressures – but now it’s not just the winter; it’s a full-blown, never-ending crisis,” he said. “It is by far the worst it’s ever been.”

Because of huge bottle necks in the system created under years of austerity and increasing demand, the ambulance service is no longer functioning effectively, Shaun (pictured below) explained.

“We’ve got patients waiting in corridors and ambulances aren’t able to respond to other calls, we’re stuck outside A&E, unable to respond, and we’ve got people out in the community who desperately need an ambulance but can’t get one,” he said. “Because of all these pressures we can’t do the job that we signed up to do. That’s the key issue.”

He said many in the service are suffering from ‘moral injury’, the acute psychological distress affecting health and other workers in caring professions after not being able to help people in need.

“We’re helplessly watching patients die because we aren’t able to do our jobs,” he said. “It’s become a huge problem and it’s why many people are leaving the service.”

Harry agreed.

“It’s really hard when you’re stuck outside A&E and you’ve got life-threatening emergencies coming in,” he said. “We’re just stuck there listening to people shouting for help for these jobs and you can’t do anything about it. It’s really upsetting.”

Minimum services bill

Many of the ambulance workers UniteLive spoke to expressed deep frustration about how the government has portrayed them during the current dispute. They’re especially angry about the recent introduction of the minimum services bill, which is now being rushed through Parliament and will severely curtail the right to strike.

The bill will force different sectors such as the ambulance service to maintain ‘minimum service levels’ which will be entirely set by the government. Some workers will then be forced to work during a strike or else face the sack. Ambulance workers say this is an unnecessary demonisation of trade union members because unions work with local trusts to maintain ‘life and limb’ cover during a strike anyway.

“It’s ironic, really, because we don’t have minimum service levels when we don’t have industrial action,” explained Unite rep and paramedic Gary Blackburn (pictured below).

“For the vast majority of the days where there is no industrial action, concerns from the government over minimum service seems to go out the window. We fail consistently to hit our A&E targets; we fail consistently to hit ambulance response times — in all the time we’ve been failing to hit those targets, I’ve not heard a peep from the government about maintaining minimum service levels.

“But then suddenly when NHS workers exercise the right to take industrial action, the government takes an extreme interest in minimum service. The fact is we are maintaining minimum service levels during strikes; those are agreed locally with the ambulance trust, and we will be sending ambulances to patients who need it.”

Tanya agreed.

“If you’re having a cardiac arrest or having breathing difficulties or other issues where you really need an ambulance, you’re much more likely to get that ambulance on a strike day than on any other day,” she explained. “That’s because there’s more of us covering ‘life and limb’ emergencies and not stuck outside of A&E not able to answer those calls.”

They can afford a pay rise

Tanya also said she was angry that the government continues to contend it cannot afford a decent pay rise for NHS workers. So far in England, the government has refused to budge from its initial pay offer earlier this year, which was well below inflation.

“They’re full of crap – the government can find money when it wants to,” she said. “It can find money to fund war but it can’t find the money for a decent pay rise for NHS and care staff? It shows where their priorities lie.”

Unite member and paramedic Harun Gulab (pictured below) likewise said that the government was being disingenuous when it has said it can’t afford a pay rise.

“They always seem to be quite generous with themselves, don’t they?” he said, pointing out that MPs have had a 28 per cent pay rise since 2010. Over the same time period, NHS workers have had around 10 per cent in cash terms, which amounts to a massive real-terms pay cut.

“If they wanted to they could afford it, because they can afford everything else,” he added.

Gary noted that affordability cuts both ways, and that a substantial pay rise, as well as adequate funding for the NHS more widely, is the only way the health service will survive.

“We can’t afford to let the NHS sink,” he said. “People are really suffering at the moment. Not long ago, when someone died in the back of an ambulance waiting to be admitted to A&E, it would make the front page of the newspapers. Now no one bats an eyelid – it’s like we’ve become anesthetised to the very real human impact that this crisis in the NHS is having. If the government doesn’t step up to the plate and resolve this dispute, the alternative is really not worth thinking about.”

Harun agreed and said his message to the government was simple — “Look after your workers and your workers will look after the country.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pics by Mark Harvey