Welsh Ambulance Service workers vote to go on strike over pay and conditions

Members of the GMB union at the Welsh Ambulance Service have voted to go on strike in a dispute over pay and conditions. Credit: PA

Ambulance workers in Wales have voted to go on strike in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Paramedics, emergency care assistants, call handlers and other staff are set to walk out on 21 December in Wales and at eight other trusts across the UK.

Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said: “Ambulance workers – like other NHS workers – are on their knees.

“Demoralised and downtrodden, they’ve faced 12 years of Conservative cuts to the service and their pay packets, fought on the frontline of a global pandemic and now face the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.

“No one in the NHS takes strike action lightly – today shows just how desperate they are.

“This is as much about unsafe staffing levels and patient safety as it is about pay. A third of GMB ambulance workers think delays they’ve been involved with have led to the death of a patient.

“Something has to change or the service as we know it will collapse."

The Welsh Government announced earlier this year that most NHS staff would be entitled to a pay increase of £1,400, amounting to a pay increase of 7.5% for lower paid staff in bands 1-4, and an increase of 4% for staff in bands 6-7.

Angie Lewis, Director of Workforce and Organisational Development at the Welsh Ambulance Service, said: “We were aware that Trade Union partners were undertaking an industrial action ballot as part of a national pay dispute which impacts NHS organisations across the country.

“While UNISON Cymru/Wales members did not reach the required turnout in the latest ballot, we have learned today that there is a mandate for strike action by GMB Union members in WAST, as well as action short of a strike.

“We look forward to maintaining dialogue with Trade Union partners as plans progress to ensure that the safety of our patients is maintained as far as possible.”

Ambulance crews are spending hours on end waiting to handover their patients to hospitals.

The Welsh Government has said it is limited by the funding it gets from Westminster, but the UK Government insists Wales has enough funding and will see its budget increase by £1.2 billion over the next two years.

The Welsh Conservatives said they are "disappointed" over the strike action due to the impact it will have on the ambulance service.

Shadow Health Minister Russell George MS said: "But let there be no doubt that, in Wales, it was the pay offer of the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay that was rejected – anybody, including unions, that seek to lay the blame at the door of someone else is doing the public and striking workers an injustice.

"Nurses have already voted to strike in all but one health board in Wales and it is astonishing the Labour Health Minister has still not met with them to negotiate – hopefully the case won’t be the same for ambulance workers.

"Patients and staff need action from the Labour Government to bring this situation to a swift and fair resolution and I urge them get around the negotiating table now."

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds MS said: “As industrial action goes, this is possibly the most alarming in terms of the potential risk to life but who can blame our hard-pressed ambulance staff given the conditions they face and their reasonable pay demands?

“The Welsh Labour Government must negotiate with the unions in order to reach a fair compromise and ensure life-saving services operate at full capacity during the winter.”

This may be a dispute over pay, but it's the working conditions that have tipped many ambulance workers over the edge.

With Wales seeing its longest ever hospital handover delays, crews just aren't able to do the job they signed up for.

Ambulances are supposed to handover their patient within 15 minutes. Instead, they are often spending their entire 12 hour shifts, sometimes even a string of shifts, sitting outside hospitals with one patient.

They hear the 999 calls coming in, but they simply can't respond.

So when the rising cost of living leaves them struggling to make ends meet - with some even relying on food banks - and the job no longer feels rewarding, they feel they have been left with no choice.

The Welsh Ambulance Service has said it is still working out how it will mitigate the impact of any potential strike action, but there's only so much it can do without a chunk of its workforce.

But it is expected that ambulance strikes will put extra pressure on emergency departments, because 999 calls are often dealt with in the community to avoid unnecessary hospital admission.

If fewer ambulances are available, there are fears within the health service that more patients will turn up to already overwhelmed A&E departments even if it's not the best place for them.

Any potential strike action could take place before Christmas, with thousands of nurses also walking out during December, and this will have consequences for patients.

But health workers say the impact of no action on patients would be far more severe.