NHS Strikes – view from the back of an ambulance

It is the season of goodwill, the season of health services being stretched to the limit and this year, the season of strikes, including amongst some of our most dedicated health professionals. Nurses and ambulance crews. The government having applauded nurses, health and care professionals on their doorsteps during the pandemic is spoiling for fight over wage increases. Promising no money.

That is one reason strikers are taking action. The need for some of them to go to food banks. The struggle to pay the rent or mortgage because pay has not caught up with the cost of living.

The other reason is the working conditions. The constant pressure in an understaffed, poorly managed health service. It never copes with demand. It is forever being reorganised but never seems to get out of crisis mode. It never has enough money.

Let me illustrate the issue through the case of Susan. Obviously not her real name.

Two days ago, she had a significant health issue. It was Category 1 incident. Fortunately, she was in a GP surgery at the time and there is nowhere better to initiate a 999 call.

The national standard for states the target ambulance response for Category 1 calls should be seven minutes on average and 90 per cent of Category 1 calls should be responded to in 15 minutes. Susan was lucky. The ambulance came in under an hour. West Midlands Ambulance Service dispatchers had predicted one and half hours. This is rural England and those response times are normal. Susan got a better response time than she and most of us now expect.

Why? It is partly rurality. It is partly because rural ambulance bases have been withdrawn. Most ambulances have to travel 30 miles to get here and of course 30 miles back. And it is mostly because too many ambulances are stuck in queues outside A&E and can’t discharge their patients.

Susan was blue lighted to A&E. In Shropshire, there are no dual carriageways south of Shrewsbury and our main trunk roads are sometimes narrow and weave around. But the ambulance driver gave it everything… Only to get to stuck in the stack.

The queue of ambulances waiting for hours to get their patients admitted to A&E.

Susan is not sure how many hours she was in the stack. Time dissolves when you are in the back of an ambulance, while waiting to be processed into A&E, waiting for triage, and waiting for admission into hospital if needed. Waiting for a hospital bed. Later, waiting for discharge. All you know is that it is a long time.

In the stack, the ambulance was supplied with more mediation and a consultant came to examine Susan in the ambulance.

Susan has nothing but praise for the ambulance and hospital staff. As she stabilised and waited in the back of the ambulance, she chatted to the paramedic.

He described a recent 12-hour shift when they had picked up a man with a dislocated shoulder. The ambulance crew ran out of morphine, gas and air in the stack. The patient was moved to another ambulance when it was freed up from the stack. The whole shift for the paramedic was taken up by one important but not life threating injury because they were stuck in the stack.

Susan asked about the planned strike.

The paramedic said they were pushed to the absolute limits. At times pushed beyond them.

He was adamant that paramedics would leave the picket line for a Category 1 call during the strike. He was totally dedicated. Totally frustrated. He did not want to strike. But he said this job “is not what I trained for.” Waiting in ambulances for hours. Not being on the road rushing to an incident. Not making the rapid potentially life saving judgements when confronted from everything from a road crash to a heart attack to an infant at the edge of life.

No one wants the strikes. Just about everyone I have spoken to supports them. If we don’t value our health workers and pay them well, we won’t have them. If we fund our health professionals properly more people will be helped back into a healthy and happy life, rather than die or have a reduced quality of life.

It is time to applaud our health and care professionals. And give them the pay and conditions they deserve. It is not time for a fight by politicians strutting to gain a reputation to enhance their careers. It is time to help our essential workers. We clapped them before. We should pay them well now.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.