Paramedics escalating strikes by reducing emergency cover, GMB warns

Paramedics are escalating strikes next week by reducing emergency cover for "category 2" calls. By Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana and Westminster Producer Lucy McDaid.

Paramedics are escalating strike action next week by cutting back on emergency cover for "category 2" calls including heart attacks, and strokes, ITV News can reveal.

Unions have been negotiating so-called "derogations" with health trusts - which mean that ambulance workers continue to respond to emergency calls despite strikes.

But the GMB union said that over 13,000 of its members who are walking out over two days next week would now "tighten derogations" - and in many cases only respond to the most life-threatening calls known as "category 1".

The decision comes after similar action was taken by GMB members working at the North West Ambulance service.

But now the union is advising all areas to follow suit - including in Wales, and across large swathes of England including the Midlands, southwest, southeast and east.

GMB National Secretary Rachel Harrison said the government had changed tack with nurses - enticing them into pay talks with the promise of an offer - only when threatened with a more dangerous strike.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had planned to take out nurses from emergency departments, intensive care units and cancer care for the first time this week, in a walk-out that has now been paused.

“GMB members working for ambulance trusts are understandably upset. They worked round the clock to provide a better service for emergencies than on non-strike days – often arriving on the scene before police and other emergency workers," said Ms Harrison.

“What was their thanks? To be smeared by ministers for risking lives."

She said some call outs on strike days had included attending to non-emergency incidents, like "drunk people at bus stops".

"Now they see other emergency workers threatening to strike with no derogations – and those workers are either instantly offered a deal, or are immediately involved in intensive talks," she said.

Ms Harrison told ITV News that the union would continue to escalate - with even tighter derogations in future strikes if the government continued to refused to talk.

Part of the problem is that ministers say they will only talk if the union pauses strikes; but the union says it will only do that with more of a concrete offer - like the one thought to have been dangled in front of nurses.

The union has not heard anything from government since the RCN talks began.

For people like Nikkita Otu, who has epilepsy, the ambulance strikes can be a "scary" time.

She said: "It affects me every hour of every day, when I'm really ill, they are the difference between life and death for me.

"It's made me feel really vulnerable and far more vulnerable than I would usually.

"When they announced the strikes I was completely in support of them and I continue to be but as someone that relies on them it's scary."

Paul Turner, an ambulance worker, says the service is at "breaking point"

But ambulance worker Paul Turner says the service "cannot continue the way they are".

"The ambulance service is at breaking point," he said.

"We have individuals who are attending foodbanks to be able to feed their families and we've also got people who are struggling to pay mortgages and rents.

"Just because we're wearing a green uniform doesn't mean we aren't seeing the same pressures as every other person."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson described the move by GMB as a "significant escalation" and said it "could risk lives".

A statement added: “We are working closely with NHS England on contingency plans, including using the military and community first responders, to protect patient safety but this action will inevitably cause further disruption for patients.

“The Health and Social Care Secretary is clear he will talk to unions who are willing to discuss what is fair and reasonable, recognising the vital role NHS workers play and the wider economic pressures facing the UK – but strikes must be postponed for formal talks to take place.”

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The government is hoping to strike a deal with the RCN but the decision to work unilaterally with one union has infuriated others.

Other health unions were already furious that the RCN demanded a payrise of Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation plus 5% at the start of the talks - while the rest only asked for above inflation.

They believe the RCN demand for 19% (5% more than RPI at the time) was used by government as a stick against the unions.

Meanwhile, the National Education Union also remains at loggerheads with the government.

The Department for Education believes it has offered the NEU a similar enticement to the RCN but a one-off payment- thought to be on the table- is unlikely to satisfy teachers.