NHS workers will strike to protect patients not harm them

LDV editor Charley Hasted writes in a personal capacity on the reasons that dedicated NHS workers have voted to strike and the pressures that have led them to vote for industrial action.

Tuesday brought the news that Unison Members in North East, North West, London, Yorkshire and South West Ambulance Service Trusts have voted for industrial action. They were joined by their colleagues in the GMB Union where members in South West, South East Coast, North West, South Central, North East, East Midlands, West Midlands, Welsh and Yorkshire Ambulance Service Trusts. Unite the Union members in Ambulance trusts have also voted to join Unison, GMB and our colleagues from the RCN in threatening industrial action.

As an Ambulance Dispatcher and Unison member I spent a lot of time thinking about how to vote. I didn’t sign up to stop people getting help when they need it after all. Nor did any of my colleagues. The NHS has spent years being staffed on goodwill and our desire to help people. We’ve put up with underfunding, insulting pay rises and being alternately sainted and damned by the government depending on which way the wind is blowing on any given day.

I’ve watched friends and colleagues throughout the NHS in all sorts of roles and in a number of trusts work themselves to the bone – over the last two years especially. A medical librarian redeployed as a porter during Covid. Three weeks of shifts where everyone saw someone having to leave the room in tears. Reports of new starters in 999 call handling putting their headsets and ID cards on the desk within a week and walking out because they simply couldn’t take anymore, and much more.

I’ve seen my wages have to stretch further and further. This month my energy company put our direct debit up by £60 a month. My food shopping used to be about £70 a week. It’s now rarely less than £110 no matter what I do. My disposable income has all but been disposed of and friends are opting out of the NHS pension because they simply can’t afford the contributions – robbing their futures to pay for the present.

We’ve all seen and heard awful stories of people being forced to wait hours for help to arrive, sometimes too late. We’ll never know how many of those people might have died in any case but they deserved a chance to survive they didn’t get.

It was that which finally persuaded me to vote for Industrial action. Knowing that without better pay, better funding and better conditions patient care is only going to get worse. We will burn out and leave because this kind of stress isn’t sustainable, we will be too hungry or too worried about how to pay the bills to do our best work. We won’t have enough people to take calls, to dispatch ambulances, or to treat patients and the people we want to help will suffer for it.

A lot of trusts are already understaffed because the job we do is not the kind of job that works for anyone. It takes a level of resilience. A lot of people don’t have to deal with the great and small tragedies happening all over the country every day. To be abused day after day and to still be willing to take another call and risk being shouted and sworn at again. Now a lot of people who’ve had that resilience for years are using it up worrying about how to heat their homes, pay the mortgage or rent and feed their family.

Most managers have tried to keep morale up but there is only so much meditation can help and once it’s gone it’s hard to get back and there are plenty of jobs that pay much the same for a lot less stress.

For me that was what it came down to. Like nurses, we are going to get attacked by the government and probably the media. We will get called greedy, grasping, cruel, uncaring, selfish. In truth, the reason thousands of us will be going on strike is the government won’t negotiate is really very simple.

We know that if nothing changes then striking is our best, and maybe only, chance to help people in the long run and that doing nothing is not an option anymore. We will give up pay to try and make sure patients get the help they need when they need it if that’s what it takes because that’s the job we signed up for.

* Charley joined the Lib Dems in 2010, has stood in Local elections in Stoke on Trent and London and was PPC for Eltham in the 2019 General Election and a GLA list candidate in 2021. They have been a Youth Worker, Early Years Teaching Assistant and FE College Governor. They are currently an Emergency Services Worker in London and Vice Chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems.