Rishi Sunak brands today's NHS ambulance strikes 'terrifying'

Rishi Sunak brands today’s NHS ambulance strikes ‘terrifying’ because patients won’t know whether paramedics will turn up if they ring 999 – as up to 25k staff down tools in protest over pay

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Rishi Sunak labelled today’s ambulance strikes ‘terrifying’ as up to 25,000 medics downed tools in a bitter row over pay.

NHS paramedics, call handlers, drivers and technicians all took part in the walk-out, which saw the public urged to dial 999 only for ‘life or limb’ emergencies.

Warning of the chaos during a fiery House of Commons debate with Labour, the PM said: ‘What’s terrifying is that right now people not knowing whether when they call 999 they will get the treatment that they need.’

Mr Sunak was responding to criticism from Sir Keir Starmer on the ‘terrifying’ NHS cancer treatment delays affecting patients across Britain.

He took aim at Labour’s leader for his refusal to support No10’s anti-strike legislation, designed to guarantee ‘minimum safety levels’ during disputes like today’s walk-out. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has branded today’s ambulance strike as ‘terrifying’ as Britons cab’t be sure an ambulance will turn up if they call 999

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the PM of prolonging the strikes and having ‘broken the NHS’

The spat in the House of Commons came as some 25,000 NHS ambulance workers downed tools today in an ongoing dispute with Government over pay

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he was due to speak to doctors’ unions on Wednesday to discuss industrial relations but the British Medical Association (BMA) said the he has actually cancelled the talks so he could give media interviews.

Addressing the current pay negotiations, Mr Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I met with the unions again on Monday, I’m meeting further with the doctors’ unions later today.’

‘We want to work constructively with the trade unions in terms of this year’s coming pay review body.’

But the BMA tweeted that the meeting had actually been cancelled, by Mr Barclay.

 ‘We see that Steve Barclay has told BBC R4 Today programme he is meeting with doctors later today,’ the union wrote. 

‘Actually he cancelled the 9am meeting we agreed so he could do media, and a further meeting is not yet agreed.

‘Hopefully it will be soon.’

The BMA is currently balloting junior doctors on potential strike action over pay, promising a 72-hour walkout if members vote yes.

It is demanding junior medics get a 26 per cent pay rise.

The union, described as ‘militant’ by critics claims this is justified by years of below inflation pay rises. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said they had not cancelled the meeting but ‘postponed’ it adding that they had offered the BMA several alternative times to meet and work was ongoing to reschedule the talks for later in the day. 

Mr Sunak said: ‘In Australia, and Canada and in the US, they banned strikes on blue light services. We’re not doing that.

‘All we’re saying is that in these emergency services, patients should be able to rely on a basic level of lifesaving care. Why is he against that Mr Speaker?’

The PM is pushing for a controversial new law that would demand a minimum level of service during industrial action like today’s strike. 

But Sir Keir accused Mr Sunak of ‘choosing to prolong misery’ of strikes and having ‘broken the NHS’. 

‘In the 13 years of the last Labour government there were no national NHS strikes,’ he said.

‘If the Prime Minister had negotiated with the nurses before Christmas, they wouldn’t be on strike. 

‘If he had negotiated with the ambulance workers, they wouldn’t be on strike either.

‘So why is he choosing to prolong the misery rather than end these strikes?’ 

In the fiery exchange during PMQs, Mr Sunak said: ‘We’ve always been clear that we want to have constructive dialogue with the unions. 

‘That is also why when it comes to the issue of pay we have accepted in full the independent recommendations of pay review bodies.

‘The honourable gentleman simply doesn’t have a policy when it comes to this question. He talks about wanting to end the strikes. The question for him is simple then: why does he not support our minimum safety legislation?’

‘We all know why…it’s because he’s on the side of his union paymasters, not patients.’

The PM’s comments came after his Health Secretary Steve Barclay criticised how ambulance unions have handled today’s industrial action across England and Wales.

Sky News asked him if he agreed with comments made by Business Secretary Grant Shapps that striking paramedics were being ‘reckless’.

The Health Secretary replied: ‘If there are delays to ambulances, then it is concerning in terms of our ability to get that care.

‘It is clearly a concern as to the impact it has on patient safety.’

Also asked if the Government’s recently announced anti-strike legislation would look to prosecute striking workers, Mr Barclay said: ‘It is about the behaviour much more of the unions than individual members.

‘For example, there is a marked difference between what we’ve seen with the RCN (Royal College of Nursing), who put national arrangements in place to guarantee safety, and what we’ve seen with the ambulance strikes, where even up to midnight last night I was getting calls in terms of what arrangements would be in place in terms of the local cover, the minimum safety levels that would be in place, because ambulance unions had refused to do that at a national level’

Up to 25,000 ambulance staff held strike action today in an ongoing dispute with Government about pay. Pictured: Ambulance workers on the picket line outside East Midlands Ambulance Service today

And look who showed up to support them! Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joined striking ambulance staff on the picket line today

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has been critical of how unions have organised the strike, claiming patients have been put at risk 

Unison’s £120,000-a-year leader general secretary and former Communist Party member Christina McAnea joins ambulance workers on the picket line outside Longley Ambulance Station in Sheffield today as staff across England and Wales walk off the job for 24 hours

As some 25,000 ambulance staff go on strike a poll suggests Britons’ faith in the emergency service is at low.

But rather than workers most members of the public thought the Government is to blame.    

Research for Good Morning Britain had YouGov poll 1,836 people for their opinions on the ambulance workers strike.

Results revealed that only 13 per cent of people surveyed would most trust an ambulance to get them to hospital if they needed to be seen urgently. 

In contrast 69 per cent would most trust a car driven by themselves, friends or family.

The survey also found that over half (57 per cent) aren’t confident that the NHS would be able to treat them or their family quickly and efficiently

The same proportion of people surveyed blamed the government for frontline health workers going on strike.

Responding to the findings Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: ‘It is about the consequence over the last three years of the pandemic. 

‘If you look at ambulance handover times before the pandemic, it wasn’t a problem in the same way, it was slightly over target… So we have seen huge pressure…’

He added: ‘I think the public can see that the NHS is under severe pressure and also see that the staff that work incredibly hard themselves are under severe pressure. I see that myself.’ 

The survey was carried out between 6th – 8th January 2023 by YouGov.

But unions have hit back, claiming the proposed law will ‘poison’ the relationship with Government, and lead to further walkouts. 

And, in a sign that NHS unions dispute with Government is deepening, a raft of staff groups said they will now boycott the independent NHS Pay Review Body.

The row comes as the public were urged to avoid calling 999 during today’s ambulance strike, with health leaders fearing it will leave the NHS in an even worst position than the December walkouts. 

Up to 25,000 paramedics and support staff – including call handlers – will walk out across the country for the second time this winter in an ongoing dispute over pay.  

The GMB union, one of two behind today’s strike, said that lives were being put at risk in the NHS ‘every single day’ by current staffing levels and not just as a result of strike action.

‘I think what we’ve actually seen is across the NHS and the ambulance services, day in and day out, is that people are suffering, patients are suffering,’ the union’s national secretary Rachel Harrison told Sky News.

‘That’s regularly reported by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, who report that patient safety standards are suffering as a result of the crisis that our NHS is facing.

‘Lives have been put at risk every single day, not because of these strikes. I absolutely disagree with what Grant Shapps has said.’

She challenged the Government to define what it considered to be safe staffing levels.

Mr Shapps had accused ambulance unions of behaving in a way that was not acceptable in a ‘civilised society’.

He said: ‘I don’t think any civilised society should have a situation where we can’t get agreement to, for example, have an ambulance turn up on a strike day for the most serious of all types of ailments.’

Today’s strike comes as unions covering a host of NHS staff groups including cleaners, porters, nurses and doctors, announced they will be boycotting the NHS Pay Review Body and called for direct negotiations instead. 

The independent body, set up under Margaret Thatcher, is a Government appointed group tasked with making recommendations on pay for staff in the health service. 

Unions and NHS employers submit evidence on what salaries are needed to improve staffing numbers while Government tells the body what the nation can afford. 

This map shows where ambulance staff are striking today, and which unions are behind the action

Ambulances parked outside Wellington Barracks waiting to be used by military personnel stepping in to cover striking NHS workers 

Troops have been instructed to respond to some emergencies but must still obey the rules of the road when driving to emergencies 

Strike comes as a host of NHS staff unions have announced they are boycotting the NHS Pay Review Process


Do YOU support the striking NHS ambulance workers? Vote here and tell us why…

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But unions have increasingly criticised ministers as using the system as shield to avoid discussing pay concerns as well as the lengthy system being too inflexible to sudden shifts in inflation. 

And today 15 of them announced they would boycott this year’s evidence review and instead called for direct pay talks with ministers.

Unison, representing 14 of the unions which include, GMB, Unite, The Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, and more, announced the joint move. 

Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health said: ‘The pay review body process doesn’t fit the current context.

‘The NHS staffing crisis is so acute only prompt action on pay – both for this and the next financial year – can start to turn things around.

Health service chiefs demand at least 5% pay rises for staff in bid to end to NHS strikes 

NHS staff deserve a pay increase of at least five per cent, NHS managers said in a submission to pay review bodies.

Up to 25,000 GMB and Unison ambulance workers are striking today after rejecting a 4.75 per cent average pay increase as hopes rise that further strikes might be called off.  

The public has been told only to dial 999 in ‘life and limb’ emergencies today as doctors are drafted in to help direct ambulances to patients as efficiently as possible. 

Government sources have suggested that there are concerns about safety during today’s strikes, emphasising that there is a lack of agreement over emergency protocols. 

Ministers are currently working on proposals for the pay review bodies for the next pay round and have suggested pay could be improved if unions commit to productivity goals. 

Today’s strikes come after NHS workers in England and Wales rejected a pay rise averaging 4.75 per cent. 

All were guaranteed an increase of at least £1,400 a year – more than 7% for the lowest paid.

But a recent survey of NHS Providers members for the 2023/2024 pay review saw 75 per cent of staff demand at least a 5 per cent increase.  

Thirty one per cent of NHS Providers members surveyed said an uplift of five per cent would be appropriate as a starting point for the 2023-2024 pay round, with only one respondent to the survey suggesting a figure below this. 

Nearly 30 per cent of respondents supported increases of between six and eight per cent and 16 per cent said more than 10 per cent was necessary, the document, which was published before Christmas, says. 

The survey also suggested that the vast majority of trusts are concerned about staff burnout and morale. 

‘The public knows ambulance response times are worsening and hospital waiting lists growing because the NHS no longer has the necessary staff to meet demand, nor provide safe patient care.

‘Ministers must seize the initiative, get everyone around the table and negotiate a way to the best deal for staff, patients and services.’

Unite union general secretary Sharon Graham said the Pay Review Body was ‘long past its sell-by date’

‘It’s no longer independent of Government and it doesn’t have powers to make major decisions about pay. So what is the point of it?,’ she said. 

‘The fact of the matter is the review body has presided over more than a decade of real wage cuts for almost all NHS staff. It has been a smokescreen which has allowed Government to drive the NHS to the point of collapse.’

And the doctors union, the British Medical Association (BMA), has also announced its intention to boycott the pay review process.

Writing in The Times, the union’s chair of council Professor Philip Banfield said: ‘The medical profession has long lost faith in the fairness or independence of this process.’

‘Neither junior doctors nor consultants will even submit evidence this year, knowing the process is rigged from the start.’

It comes as NHS mangers said staff deserve a pay increase of at least 5 per cent, in their submission to the pay review body.

A recent survey of NHS Providers members, a body representing NHS organisations, for the 2023/2024 pay review saw 75 per cent of staff demand at least a 5 per cent increase. 

Thirty one per cent of NHS Providers members surveyed said such an uplift would be appropriate as a starting point for the 2023-2024 pay round, with only one respondent to the survey suggesting a figure below this. 

Nearly a third of respondents supported increases of between 6 and 8 per cent and 16 per cent said more than 10 per cent was necessary.

The survey, published just before Christmas, also suggested that the vast majority of trusts are concerned about staff burnout and morale. 

Ministers are currently working on proposals for the pay review bodies for the next pay round and have suggested pay could be improved if unions commit to productivity goals.

As the dispute rolls on Mr Barclay also urged the public to use their ‘common sense’ today and avoid risky behaviour during the ambulance strike.  

Ambulance workers on the Unison union picket line outside Longley Ambulance Station in Sheffield

GMB ambulance workers on the picket line outside Bromsgrove Ambulance Hub in Bromsgrove

Ambulances parked outside London Ambulance Service HQ in London this morning as Unison members of the service take part in strike action

Some ambulance workers getting some support on the picket line outside Soundwell Ambulance Station in Bristol

Rail union baron Mick Lynch boasts he is a ‘popular person’ despite signs of waning support for strikes – while drivers’ chief tells MPs talks to end industrial action have gone BACKWARDS 

Rail union barons boasted about their popularity today as they warned that talks to end strikes were going backwards.

In a combative session before MPs, RMT chief Mick Lynch dismissed signs that public support for industrial action has been waning.

He told the Transport Committee he was a ‘more popular person than many of the politicians in this room’.

Meanwhile, ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan gave a gloomy assessment of the prospects for a resolution to the long-running dispute.

‘We’re further away than when we started,’ he said.

The rail network was crippled again last week as staff took part in a series of walkouts over demands for double-digit pay rises.

Rishi Sunak yesterday unveiled new laws that would force the unions to guarantee a ‘minimum service level’ even when they strike.

However, it is likely to be around a year before the measures can be put into effect.

He told Times Radio: ‘People can see that today is going to be a very challenged day for the ambulance service.’

‘The focus will be on those life-threatening incidents and ensuring those are addressed, but there will be strain on the rest of the system.

‘So, we are just saying to people, use their common sense.’

He added that if the public should still call 999 in genuine life-threatening emergencies.

NHS managers have also expressed concerns that the new wave of walkouts would cause more ‘significant disruption’ than December strikes, leaving the health service in ‘an even more precarious position’.

Experts have also warned of a ‘rebound’ effect similar to December’s strike which saw the public put off calling for medical help during industrial action only to swamp the health service in the subsequent days. 

While union leaders have promised life and limb cover Government sources said there are worries about a lack of agreement over emergency care. 

They said a lack of agreement on contingency planning was concerning and could be included in the minimum-service legislation the government is considering. 

Today’s 24-hour walkout involves paramedics, drivers, and in contrast to December’s action call handlers, raising fears more patients could die while waiting for help.

Callers are likely to face longer waits for 999 and 111 calls to be answered and there will be far fewer ambulances on the road.

The NHS has drafted doctors into control rooms to help identify the most critical patients as bosses are forced to ration ambulances.

Some callers will be told to make their own way to hospital, potentially using a bus or taxi.

And Britons will face a postcode lottery of emergency care as unions have refused to commit to a national level of service, with deals done locally instead. 

Miriam Deakin, interim deputy CEO of NHS Providers, said her members were worried because Unison was also telling call handlers and ambulance dispatchers, who remained in work during the December strike, to walk out.

Unison has balloted 15,000 of its members who are striking in London, Yorkshire, the North West, North East and South West. 

Paramedic Jackie Jarvis, on the picket line in Medway, some paramedics have reported that patients have died unnecessarily from delays in ambulance response times, an issue unions have linked to staffing  vacancies and pay

NHS ambulance workers take part in a strike, amid a dispute with the Government over pay. Unions are arguing for an above inflation pay rise. Staff pictured  outside Manchester Central Ambulance Station

Striking ambulance workers on the picket line outside Huddersfield Ambulance Station

Answers to MailOnline’s poll as of 11.40pm GMT today

Barclay declares he uses the NHS after PM Rishi Sunak refuses to say if he goes private

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has said he does not use private healthcare and is treated on the NHS.

His declaration comes after his boss, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, came under fire for refusing to say if he or his family used private healthcare.

Mr Sunak repeatedly declined to clear up the issue when questioned this on Sunday by the BBC on if he pays to skip NHS queues to see a doctor.

It followed previous reports that the PM is registered with a private GP practice in west London that guarantees patients with urgent concerns will be seen ‘on the day’.

While Mr Barclay defended those who choose to go private he added he was not among them.

‘I don’t subscribe to a sort of GP private thing,’ the Cabinet minister told LBC.

Pressed on whether he has NHS care, Mr Barclay replied: ‘Yes, I don’t subscribe to private provision.

‘But I don’t have a problem with people, with their own money, who wish to spend that money on private healthcare.

‘I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing for people to want to do.’

The minister’s declaration could see Mr Sunak face more pressure to state if he or his family use private care.

Union The Royal College of Nursing has urged the PM to ‘come clean’ while Labour has said Mr Sunak gives the impression of being a leader who ‘not only doesn’t use the NHS but doesn’t understand the scale of the challenges’.

The Prime Minister has spoken about his desire to cut NHS waiting lists but has been reluctant to answer if he uses the strained service himself.

His stance is unlike Conservative former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who spoke of exercising her ‘right as a free citizen to spend my own money in my own way’ to seek private care.

Speaking to BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: ‘As a general policy I wouldn’t ever talk about me or my family’s healthcare situation.

‘But it’s not really relevant, what’s relevant is the difference I can make to the country.’

Mr Barclay admitted to broadcasters on Wednesday that the NHS is under pressure as it battles Covid backlogs, complicated hospital discharge arrangements and a particularly bad flu season.

Up to 10,000 ambulance workers who are members of the GMB are expected to strike in areas including the South West, South East coast, North West, North East, East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Wales.

Members who are striking will stagger their walkouts, which each striker not working for between six and 12 hours, to allow trusts to maintain a critical level of cover. 

Ambulances will respond to category one incidents, which include where a patient is not breathing or their heart has stopped, but may not travel to patients having heart attacks, strokes, burns or falls. 

Troops have been called in to drive some ambulances, similar to last month’s industrial action. 

And in at least some areas, unions have agreed to take members off the picket line and back to work if demand for life and limb saving care becomes too high. 

Daniel Elkeles, chief executive of London Ambulance Service, said he expected only half of the capital’s ambulances will be available. 

He added: ‘It is still really, really busy in the NHS and hospitals are really, really full so I would just ask the public to be really helpful again tomorrow and only phone us if they have a life and limb-threatening emergency.’

Ben Holdaway, director of operations at the East Midlands Ambulance Service, said: ‘Where possible, our 999 control rooms will carefully assess and prioritise an ambulance response for those who need it most, and this may only be where there is a threat to life.’

Yorkshire Ambulance Service said crews will still be able to respond during the strike, ‘but this will only be where there is an immediate risk to life.’

In the North West, ambulance bosses urged the public to ensure ambulances are available for life-threatening cases, with other patients likely to be asked to ‘take alternative transport, such as a taxi or get a lift from family or friends’. 

But paramedics on the frontline have said low pay is forcing them to make tough choices amid the cost-of-living crisis.

Vimal Mistry, a paramedic for seven years, and who attended the GMB picket line at East Midlands Ambulance Service claimed he is having to limit the heating in his home because of poor pay.

‘I’m now having to think about how much heating I have on in the house – I have it on for two hours now,’ he said. 

Another paramedic, mother-of-two Jenny Giblin who was on the picket line at Birkenhead said: ‘I’ve been here long enough that I am on a better wage than some but I’m still sitting at home timing how long I’ve got the heating on for.’

‘I’ve got two children under three. If I’m struggling, I don’t know how people on lower wage bands cope. People are living on overtime.

‘We have got families and an ambulance strike is worrying for us, but if we don’t do anything about these conditions there won’t be an ambulance service and there won’t be an NHS.’

And while the Sir Keir was in the House of Commons his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn joined Unison union members on the NHS picket line in North London this morning.

In a tweet attacking Mr Sunak’s proposed strike law he said: ‘Strikes do not undermine public safety.’ 

NHS data showed that ambulances record delays when handing over patients to A&E departments in the week to January 1. More than a quarter (18,720) were forced to queue for more than 60 minutes before handing over their patients to A&E (shown in graph)

Graphic shows the average response times for Category 1, 2, 3 and 4 calls to ambulance services across England (left), and, right, the average response time for each call (red) compared to the target response time (blue) across all services

Graphic showing the average time it takes for ambulance services across England to pick up 999 calls

‘Austerity, outsourcing and poor working conditions undermine public safety. Solidarity with ambulance staff striking for the safety of us all.’

The dispute between unions and Government has rumbled on since December when staff first took to the picket lines over pay and staffing. 

Unions claim pay failing to keep pace with inflation is forcing workers to leave the NHS, exacerbating staffing pressures. There are currently just over 3,300 vacancies in ambulances services in England, according to the latest data. 

In November, unions voted to strike over the Government’s 4 per cent pay award for NHS staff last year. 

GMB says it wants a ‘catch-up settlement’ for its members to restore ‘a decade of lost earnings and a retention package that properly rewards existing staff’. 

Meanwhile, Unison says it wants an above-inflation pay rise, which currently sits at about 9 per cent. 

Labour has warned patients ‘may not get an ambulance today when they need one’ because of today’s NHS strikes.

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said the mass walkout could prevent people getting the care they need.

He tweeted: ‘People may not get an ambulance today when they need one.

But he added: ‘An even greater tragedy is that this was also true yesterday and will be true again tomorrow.’

Further strike action is also planned for later this month with Unison, and fellow NHS ambulance union Unite, to hold more co-ordinated industrial action on January 23.

The Government also has an ongoing dispute with other NHS staff groups like nurses who are also holding strikes this month.

Junior doctors could also join them with the British Medical Association currently balloting its members on strike action. 

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Is YOUR ambulance service on strike? 

Unison has balloted 15,000 of its members who are striking in London, Yorkshire, the North West, North East and South West. 

Up to 10,000 ambulance workers who are members of the GMB are expected to strike in areas including the South West, South East coast, North West, North East, East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Wales.

Source: Unison and GMB

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