London ambulance London ambulance. Photo: Eddie / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0, license linked below article

A London ambulance worker tells Counterfire about why colleagues are striking before Xmas

We beat the anti-union laws! We got a 54% turnout but it’s the 93% yes vote that truly reflects how workers feel on the ground. The turnout was always going to be affected by the nature of the job, that we have a transitional workforce, and by the postal strikes. The union’s hotline was bombarded with members’ queries and lots simply couldn’t get through. But I can tell you that I have not met anybody personally at work who’ve said they weren’t voting for strike action.

The obvious thing to do next is to name strike dates in coordination with the RCN nurses. The anti-union laws means it’s too late to coordinate on 15 December but we should certainly come out together on 20 December (even though I hear it’s likely to be 21 December).

Our demands are in parallel with the nursing staff because within the NHS there’s a grading system, Bands 1, 2 3, 4 5, so on and so forth. If they get a pay rise in Band 5 for example it will automatically come to us anyway. So, our demands are in line with what the nurses want. Whatever they want, we want. There’s obvious grounds for solidarity between the nurses and ourselves – we should be striking together.

The eyes and ears of the NHS

But this strike isn’t just about pay, it’s about saving our NHS too.

As the ambulance service we’re the eyes and ears of the hospitals and other parts of the NHS. So, we go out to bring in patients, the emergency ones, the more serious ones and we’re being stifled because of the lack of social care. In the big hospitals the A&E departments can’t move their patients on to the wards because wards can’t move their patients on because of the lack of social care. So, if someone is in for a hip operation, probably for a couple of weeks, they obviously have a lack of mobility and are in need of social care. They need people to stop them falling and someone to look after them, to feed them, clothe them, clean them. If that person doesn’t have any social care to be discharged with, they’re just going to stay in there.

So, for example I spent 4 hours in a hospital waiting the other day to unload a patient and in the end we still couldn’t move the patient on in the hospital. I was in the ambulance and in the end, they directed me to another hospital. They told me “the only capacity we’ve got is in this particular hospital” in the entire east of London. That took 5 hours in the end. I would do at least 6 to 10 jobs in a day but now I’m doing much less because there really is not enough capacity anywhere which leaves you spending time, hours at a hospital waiting.

Time is of the essence in a lot of the emergencies we deal with. We can’t do our job. The A&E can’t do their job which is processing people in and triaging them correctly to move them on to the wards or discharge them. The service just grinds to a halt, you just can’t move forward.

And we’ve known this has been coming for a long time. It feels like a tidal wave in slow motion because we knew we were short of nurses, short of GPs and ambulance workers, just generally short across the board. It’s been at least 10 years that we’ve been fully aware of it.

And the government is in denial. Utter denial, just pretending this isn’t happening. And what I’m describing is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve not met many people who don’t think that the government is running the NHS down on purpose. I’ve not met many people who don’t believe that privatisation will be a creeping process of a little bite here, a bit ripped away there like they’ll take away the blood transfusion unit part here while the physiotherapy part goes private there. We’ve been able to defeat the government on some of this process of privatisation but the momentum is always forward to privatise more of it and more of it and make the general public responsible for their own health and more reliant on private health. 

Drastic action

That’s why I feel like we need to take drastic action – like the surgeon who lobs off the limb to save the life – if we don’t take drastic action, a full-on strike, we’re going to lose the NHS.

Last time we went on strike, about 8 years ago we had a four-hour strike with one ambulance covering for the more serious calls. The mentality is not to go all-out but striking, if you like, softly.

On the strike days we will still be providing emergency cover in that we just won’t respond to the lower category calls. Cat 1 calls we will respond to like serious road traffic accidents and that kind of stuff.  The A&E’s will be open still, it’s just routine operations and out patients that kind of stuff that will be shut. Service will be running just not for more routine treatments.

But if we don’t strike hard, many more people will die without a functioning nation-wide health service. That’s the only option we really have now. We are striking to save the NHS, not just to get a pay rise. I haven’t had a meal break for so long… I’ve had 5 meal breaks this year. We’re that busy that we just don’t have meal breaks. What more can I give? I come to work, I work my whole 12 hours shift, come off late and there’s nothing more I can give. I can’t work any faster. The system is at bursting point.

We have no option but to fight back and try and make the NHS survive. The government wants to run it down and they want to break our strike.

We worked with the police, the armed forces and the fire brigade during the Covid period – they covered some driving for us allowing us to split crews and have more ambulances on the road. How we will react to the armed forces covering our strike? I’m certain relations will appear polite and friendly but let’s be clear, it’s strike breaking isn’t it? That’s what it is and our relationship with the police and armed forces will deteriorate no doubt. Anyone who tries to make our strike more difficult for us has to expect that. And the government’s strike breaking operation will hurt the general public even more because rather than listening to us they’ll be forcing us to strike more and harder to meet our demands.

This is a fight for every trade unionist and the general public. The NHS was founded on the principles of solidarity and it’s solidarity that’s going to have to save it. Solidarity is what it says all our trade union banners. If we unite, strike on the same days, protest together and work towards the same goals – if we stand united in solidarity – we will win.

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