Ambulance unions to meet health secretary for 11th-hour talks ahead of strikes

The government is to hold crisis talks with health unions tomorrow over fears that some serious 999 calls will go unanswered, when ambulance staff go on strike on Wednesday. Health Editor Emily Morgan reports

Unions representing striking ambulance drivers will attend 11th-hour talks convened by Health Secretary Steve Barclay but the discussions are unlikely to avert the action.

Mr Barclay wants to discuss patient safety with Unison, GMB and Unite on Tuesday but his refusal to negotiate on pay means the following day’s strikes are bound to go ahead.

Paramedics, ambulance technicians and call handlers will walk out in England and Wales on Wednesday in action that will affect non-life threatening calls.

The health secretary is understood to hold concerns over whether all emergency calls will be covered, but unions said there would be “no strikes at all if ministers would only talk to unions and improve NHS pay”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been refusing to back down and negotiate on public sector pay to halt the wave of action, with the ambulance strikes coming a day after the second nurses’ walkout.

A Department of Health and Social Care source said Mr Barclay “is hoping for a constructive discussion ahead of the planned ambulance strike”.

“But he remains concerned that some union officials still haven’t confirmed that they will cover all emergency calls in their talks with trusts. Some are even suggesting they could answer calls from picket lines, which would increase delays,” they said.

“Our contingency plans can only do so much – this week’s planned ambulance strike will put patients at risk. If they are intent on industrial action, unions must ensure there will be adequate cover for emergency calls.”

Health Secretary Steve Barclay. Credit: PA

Trade union laws mean life-preserving care must be provided by striking health workers.

But Mr Barclay holds concerns over whether they will cover all “category two” calls, which cover serious conditions such as strokes or chest pain.

Category one covers those with life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

All calls in the most serious category will be responded to, while some ambulance trusts have agreed exemptions with unions for specific incidents within category two.

Union sources indicated they had gone beyond their legal requirement during local-level discussions on what calls to cover.

Political Editor Robert Peston says there's not expected to be a resolution to prevent strikes before Christmas

Taxi drivers, military personnel and police officers could be called into cover calls relating to the less serious remaining two categories under contingency plans.

GMB, which said 10,000 of its ambulance members backed walkouts across nine trusts, welcomed the chance to meet with Mr Barclay but said “he needs to talk pay now”.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said she would meet the health secretary but urged the Government to “stop using public safety fears as a smokescreen for its own inaction”.

“There’d be no strikes at all if ministers would only talk to unions and improve NHS pay,” she added.

“I’ve cleared my diary and would be happy to meet the Secretary of State at any time to resolve the dispute no one wants.”

Unite also intends to attend the talks.

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