Ambulance staff based at Swanage and Wareham formed a picket line to highlight the constant shortage of staff, hours spent waiting at hospitals and the distress at leaving dying people without the care they need.
Strike action by ambulance workers who are members of the GMB and Unison unions took place across England and Wales on Wednesday 11th January 2023, including in Purbeck.
The ambulance satff argue that without a pay increase, vacancies in the NHS will never get filled
Wareham Ambulance Station picket line
While still ready to respond to life-threatening emergencies, the Purbeck team gathered outside Wareham Ambulance Station to protest about what they say is a decline in working conditions and the low level of pay.
This, they say, results not only in making it difficult for workers to pay their bills but also in a shortage of staff, as it’s difficult to retain qualified staff and to attract new trainees.
Typically a double crewed ambulance is staffed by a paramedic and an emergency care assistant (ECA). Starting pay for an ECA is £11.11 an hour, rising to £11.85 an hour after two years. The national minimum wage is £10.18 an hour.
“We are frustrated that the government isn’t doing more talking”
GMB union organiser for Purbeck and paramedic Duncan Shayler made an impassioned plea for the government to listen to their concerns. He said:
“When we find the right people we need to keep them and pay them a proper wage for the job they do. We are frustrated that the government isn’t doing more talking – I would be perfectly happy not to be here today.”
On the picket line at Wareham Ambulance Station
“We end up leaving very unwell, sometimes dying people, without the care they should be able to expect”
But he’s keen to emphasise that the strike isn’t just about pay but the conditions that they have to work under. Duncan said:
“The waiting for hours with a patient outside A and E, unable to hand them over into the care of the hospital staff is hugely stressful. As you sit there, you hear the messages over the radio, like of a child having a cardiac arrest and you can’t go to them as you are stuck in a queue.
“It’s also terrible for your patient, as they hear the details too and can feel guilty that they’ve called an ambulance when their condition isn’t life threatening, although they totally did the right thing to call 999.
“On one shift before Christmas I sat in an ambulance for seven hours outside Poole Hospital. Eventually at 10.30 pm in the evening I was able to hand the patient over, but only to a bed in a corridor. In that time I should have helped four to five other patients.
“We end up leaving very unwell, sometimes dying people, without the care they should be able to expect.”
The ambulances at Wareham were ready to respond to life-threatening emergencies
Swanage Ambulance Car still not fully staffed
Along with places across the country, there’s a shortage of staff in Purbeck. The Swanage ambulance car still isn’t fully staffed despite promises from South Western Ambulance Service managers, and the crew are often pulled off the car to cover for a shortage of staff on the ambulances.
There’s a 24 hour ambulance based in Swanage and a 24 hour ambulance based in Wareham plus a second ambulance crewed for 10 hours, which in practice covers shift changeovers.
However at times there just isn’t enough staff to cover the rota all the time, so if there’s a call out in Purbeck it could end up being covered by an ambulance coming from Weymouth or Dorchester.
Duncan says it is heartbreaking clocking off after a long shift knowing that the next shift is left uncovered leaving our community without an immediate emergency response.
It’s also difficult for the crews who cover from a distance away, negotiating unfamiliar roads knowing that they are still an hour away from a patient needing urgent care.
Swanage ambulance staff supported the strike
Lots of local support
The picket line at Wareham Ambulance Station received a lot of support during the day, from vehicles tooting their horn in support, to many people arriving in person to say how grateful they were for what the ambulance staff do.
Swanage resident Fred Lindop who joined the picket line for a while in solidarity said:
“I’m very strongly in favour of supporting the ambulance staff in their action. The government needs to listen. The point is that these people are working so hard but worse off than 10 years ago. There’s been 10 to 15 years of cuts and it’s unacceptable.”
“I have huge admiration for them”
Also joining in was Stoborough resident Michael Dixon. He said:
“I wholeheartedly support the ambulance workers – they just don’t get enough appreciation for the job that they do.
“The trauma that they must see and the resulting unspoken mental health issues that they face – I have huge admiration for them. I’m certain that many of us just couldn’t do the job that they do.”
Third strike planned
This is the second time that ambulance workers have gone on strike during the recent dispute. The first strike was on Wednesday 21st December 2022 with a picket line at Swanage Ambulance Station.
A third strike is already planned for Monday 23rd January 2023 by ambulance staff belonging to Unison. The GMB has not announced further dates.
Full statement by GMB union organiser for Purbeck and paramedic Duncan Shayler
“First and foremost I’d like to reassure the public than my members and I absolutely remain available and ready to attend any life-threatening emergencies today. Likewise our colleagues within the minor injuries and urgent care centres across the county are ready and waiting to
assist with any other urgent needs.
“Secondly I’d like to reassure that whilst my members and I are standing upon the picket line we will not be taking a penny of taxpayers money, those of us actively “on duty” are doing so unpaid and several of our members are out supporting the picket whilst on our day off.
“Taking industrial action is not something any of us have come to lightly; unfortunately attempts to highlight our concerns through other channels that continue to be unrecognised and ignored.
“The NHS is and has always run on a great deal of good will; be that from ambulance crews, nurses, doctors or a whole host of others who dedicate their lives to helping people on their worst possible days. It is currently on its knees; we simply do not have the levels of staffing to provide a consistently safe service that our patients should be able to rely on.
“Locally, this can be seen by extended ambulance response times, the constant telephone queues trying to access 111 or GP surgeries and the regular queues outside our emergency departments as ambulance crews continue to provide care for their patients long after our arrival at hospital, whilst there simply isn’t the physical space or staffing to take over care on our arrival.
“Whilst we are there we are unable to respond to other calls delaying response time and leaving very unwell, sometimes dying people, without the care they should be able to expect. Crews are regularly moved to tears listening to our control centres broadcasting for Category 1 incidents (the very highest priority – people are literally dying) and being unable to respond.
“This vicarious trauma experienced by crews adds to the levels of stress and this distress increases sickness and burn out.
“Furthermore our members regularly miss meal breaks and work beyond the end of their shifts, with scheduled finishing times simply being a target. Imagine not being able to plan anything after work as you are regularly two to three hours late.
“In just a three week period last month, as I did take a week’s holiday, I personally gave more than 14 unplanned hours of additional work due to late finishes.
“The NHS as a whole currently has over 130,000 staff vacancies! That’s an awful lot of paramedics, emergency care assistants, emergency medical dispatchers, doctors, nurses, health care assistants and more that we wish were available to support you in your hour of need that simply aren’t there.
“Whilst my members and I attempt to cover as many of these shifts as we can, it is heartbreaking clocking off at the end of a 12/14 or sometimes 15/16 hour shift knowing, that as the oncoming shift has been left uncovered, there is no one to take over until you come back tomorrow, leaving our local community without an ambulance, without an immediate emergency response.
“The only saving grace is knowing that colleagues from other patches will attend but this provides a less timely response with less local knowledge, reducing the care we can offer, extending response times, reducing positive outcomes and compromises other areas.
“Imagine the anguish of a crew attending a time critical emergency an hour or more away from them, just how many other road users are they going to need to consider and predict their actions? How many junctions or hazards do they need to negotiate, at speed, especially if travelling on roads that we are not familiar with? All whilst knowing that a patient is in need of their urgent assistance, perhaps with an untrained bystander performing CPR on a loved one?
“Or consider those other emergencies, those serious but not immediately life threatening, how long can they safely be left? How long is too long? Is it fair that the first thing my members and I say on arriving to emergencies is, “I’m sorry it’s taken so long”, is it fair that our patients suffer simply because we are not fully staffed?
“This is happening, this is real, each of us here will be able to recount a story of an incident where delays in our attendance, or delays in hospital handovers have resulted in our patients having deteriorated, suffered worse outcomes or resulted in direct harm.
“I’d argue this isn’t acceptable, I’d argue that we are letting patients down on a daily basis, I’d argue it’s not good enough, I’d argue this cannot be allowed to continue. I’d argue it’s time for us to stand up and say enough is enough!
“The physical and mental demands of working, whilst we remain understaffed and under such pressure, means realistically none of us will reach retirement age whilst still in the careers we signed up for – if we do i sadly suspect that retirement will be cut short.
“We need the government to step up, we need them to reduce the barriers to recruitment, we need them to offer a package that will attract new staff to fill these vacancies, both within the ambulance service and the wider NHS and we need them to find a way to share this pressure and therefore retain our trained and experienced colleagues within the service.
“Just last week one of my members explained to me that he loves the job he does and desperately wants to stay and develop his career within the service but in the current cost of living crisis he simply can’t afford his bills on his current salary and therefore can’t afford to stay in the role without taking on a second (better paid) job – unfortunately he isn’t alone.
“This simply isn’t right, he gives his all to the service and often 48 hours or more each week, but rather than use his days off to recuperate and reset for the next set of shifts, he has to work another role.
“No one joins the NHS to get rich, we don’t have delusions of grandeur, we come because it’s our calling, we come because we want to be able to help in your hour of need, we come because we want to reduce pain and suffering.
“My members and I absolutely didn’t want to have to strike, we don’t want to let our patients down, and even whilst on strike we remain available for life-threatening incidents.
“But right now, with over 130,000 vacancies across the NHS, the rate at which experienced staff are leaving is at an all time high, whilst over half of NHS trusts having to provide food banks for their staff and whilst patients continue to suffer, we have no choice.
“We were prepared to cancel today when at the weekend we heard the government was coming to the table and trust me we were absolutely as disappointed as you were on hearing from our national team that Steve Barclay continues to ignore our fundamental concerns for your safety
or the future of the NHS and refuses to negotiate. By doing so sadly he ordered today’s event and those that will follow.”