Ambulance strikes: North East Ambulance Service staff describe their 'absolute desperation' on third day of strike action

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North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) workers said taking strike action was a sign of their “absolute desperation” after more than a decade of “under-funding of the NHS” and real-terms pay cuts.

Today (Monday January 23) there were picket lines across the region, including South Shields, where NEAS paramedics, call handlers, drivers and technicians from Unison, the service’s biggest union, were taking a third day of industrial action.

For paramedic and Unison representative, John Lennon, taking industrial action was a last resort.

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Speaking from the picket line, John, 60, said: “This action shows our absolute desperation. Taking strike action really goes against the grain. No one wants to strike, but this is a last resort.

"As yet, there has been no offer forthcoming. The Government need to sit down around the negotiating table and look at a fair compromise.”

For John, the biggest reason for industrial action is to highlight the “current crisis” afflicting the NHS after what he feels is years of under-funding which has led to scenes of long queues of ambulances outside of hospitals and the NEAS recently declaring a critical incident.

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He added: “Pay is an issue, but for me it’s not the biggest issue.

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NEAS staff on the picket line in South Shields.NEAS staff on the picket line in South Shields.
NEAS staff on the picket line in South Shields.

"On a normal working day, we are expected to attend call-outs for serious jobs, such as strokes and heart attacks, in under 18 minutes, but at the moment it’s one-hour-and-35-minutes.

"We’ve a lack of staff as people are leaving the profession and this is compromising patients’ safety. During strike action, we are still dealing with emergency incidents, and for the Government to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. It’s the Government, not us, who are putting patients at risk.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Unison regional organiser and ambulance lead, Miles Elliott, 33, who speaking from the picket line said: “NEAS and NHS staff have had a real-term pay cut for over a decade, and with the current cost of living need a pay rise which is inline with inflation.

"One of the reasons for the crisis with healthcare at the moment is that staff, including NEAS employees, are leaving in their droves to find better paid less stressful jobs elsewhere.

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Workers on the NEAS picket line in Chester-le-StreetWorkers on the NEAS picket line in Chester-le-Street
Workers on the NEAS picket line in Chester-le-Street

"The only way to address this is to pay people properly. This is a situation which has been created in Downing Street and can only be solved in Downing Street by getting around the negotiating table.”

Unison regional secretary Clare Williams added: “People are struggling to make ends meet and at the moment around 50% of NHS trusts are providing food assistance to employees.

"We are at crisis point, with an unprecedented amount of staff vacancies and the Government really does need to address the issue of pay to recruit and retain staff.”

NEAS workers say the Government needs to "get round the negotiating table".NEAS workers say the Government needs to "get round the negotiating table".
NEAS workers say the Government needs to "get round the negotiating table".

Responding to the strike, Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “It’s hugely disappointing some ambulance workers are continuing to take industrial action. While we have contingency plans in place to mitigate risks to patient safety, there will inevitably be further disruption.

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“It’s important people continue coming forward for treatment. Call 999 in life threatening emergencies and use NHS 111 online, local pharmacies and GP services for non-life threatening care.

“I’ve had constructive talks with unions about this coming year’s pay process and am keen to continue talking about what’s affordable and fair.”