Health secretary Steve Barclay warned there will be “disruption” to NHS services across England and Wales because of walkouts by ambulance workers over pay and working conditions.
Workers from GMB and Unison have begun industrial action in ten out the 11 ambulance trusts, following a heated escalation in rhetoric between ministers over the impact of strikes on patient safety.
Barclay has urged the public to continue to call the 999 in the case of life threatening incidents, but warned that the ambulance service could be put under pressure in the coming hours due to lack of national consistency in emergency cover.
“There is an agreement with the trade union in terms of the most serious calls . . . but it is clear that there will be disruption in terms of other calls, “he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. “Part of the reason for the challenge in terms of contingency measures is that unlike for example the RCN (Royal College of Nursing), who put in place national agreements in terms of minimum service levels, the ambulance unions have refused to do so and insisted on having local arrangements”.
The health secretary also stressed that the government was keen to work “constructively” with unions on this year’s coming pay review for 2023/24, part of efforts to prevent future strike action. Union leaders, meanwhile have urged the government to reassess last year’s deal.
“I don’t think it’s right to go all the way back to April and retrospectively be looking at April when we are already under way in terms of this year’s pay review body,” he told the programme. “But of course the unions made representations about that and what the prime minister said on the weekend was that nothing is off the table”.
Following Monday’s meeting between ministers and union representatives, Barclay signalled to attendees that he would consider proposals such as backdating the coming year’s NHS pay rise to January 2023 and a one off lump sum payment as part of efforts to prevent future strike action.
However, speaking on Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison said that the union had received “no indication” that the government would seriously consider making offers such as one off payments.
But she added: “If it was a really good one-off payment, if it was a really good offer for next year that was going to be backdated, then we would look at any of them. We’re not ruling out anything.”
Challenged on what exactly the government was prepared to put forward to health workers, Barclay argued that ministers should be taking into account “pressure on inflation over the past year, the pressure on the NHS” as part of discussions relating to the upcoming pay review, but refused to publicly speculate on any detailed proposals.