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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
PA Ambulance workers on the picket line in London last month. UK ambulance staff are set to strike on two more days in January.
nhs strikes

UK government urged to reopen pay talks as NHS strikes continue

Ambulance staff and nurses are to go on strike in the coming weeks due to pay disputes.

A LEADING HEALTH chief in the UK has urged the British government to reopen talks with unions over pay, saying the “last thing” the NHS needs is four days of strikes in January.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said the current situation in the health service is “very difficult” as it grapples with too few staff and high demand exacerbated by flu and Covid.

It comes after warnings over an “intolerable” situation in the NHS, with patients facing long waits for treatment, ambulances delayed, and thousands of beds taken up with medically fit people who should not be there.

Taylor told BBC Breakfast: “There’s no doubt the situation is very difficult – that’s why many trusts have declared critical incidents.

“We are not able to provide the level of service we want to provide.

“The simple reality here is that the health service is caught between the fact that it has limited capacity, particularly when it comes to workforce – 130,000 vacancies – and a level of demand that it is difficult to meet in ordinary times.

industrial-strike PA Members of the Royal College of Nursing in London on the picket line in December PA

“When you add in flu and Covid, which doesn’t just affect patients but also means many staff are off ill, that’s when you get to this very difficult situation we’re in.”

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has repeated its claim that somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying each week as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care.

Chris Hopson, chief strategy officer at NHS England, has said the health service does not “recognise these numbers”.

Asked if cases of flu and Covid have peaked, he said: “I think it’s very difficult to be clear. I don’t think the statistics would give us reason to feel that we have peaked – January is normally the hardest month for the health service.

“So I think the one thing that we can say is that it’s going to carry on being tough, and that’s why it’s important to be clear about the situation and it’s important to have clear messages to the public.

“But also … it’s really important that, as ministers return to their desks, that they consider ways of reopening negotiations with the trade unions because four days of strikes on top of the situation we’re in now is the last thing we need.”

Ambulance staff are set to walk out on 11 and 23 January in a dispute over pay, while nursing staff will strike for two consecutive days on 18 and 19 January.

industrial-strike PA Recovery nurse Anne Nesbitt on the picket line in Belfast last month. UK nurses are set to strike on two more days this month PA

Taylor said that, over the longer term, the NHS needs “sustained investment”, adding: “The Government in its autumn statement last year committed at last – after many years of delay – to a workforce strategy.

“Over time, if we have a proper workforce strategy and it is properly funded, that will make a difference.

“The Prime Minister has talked about the health service as a priority this year, and I think on one hand we’ve got to find ways of getting through this winter, but on the other hand we’ve got to commit to doing whatever we need to do to ensure that we enter next winter in a less fragile state.”

Elsewhere, Sally Warren, the director of policy at the King’s Fund think tank, said tens of thousands of people are waiting for social care assessments, which has an impact on hospitals.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “while they’re waiting, their condition might deteriorate and they may end up in the NHS system, be that with their GP, with NHS 111, or at the hospital front door”.

Richard Webber, spokesman for the College of Paramedics, said hospitals are “full of patients who should be elsewhere”, with many hospitals having 100 or 200 patients who should not be there.

“They should be elsewhere being looked after in social care; they can’t be discharged, which means that the patients in the emergency department can’t be admitted to hospital,” he said.

“So, the absolute focus for me has to be on getting patients out of hospital who are fit. It just seems to me completely bizarre that we have a patient who has been deemed by a consultant as medically fit to go home or to somewhere else for care is left in a bed, (while) somebody who’s not medically fit sits outside in an ambulance for eight or 10 hours waiting to be admitted.

“The real problem is to get patients discharged from hospital and get the system working, and that can only be done by greater investment in social care, and probably better employment – pay is very, very low in that sector.”

Well over a dozen NHS trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents over the festive period, with the British Medical Association (BMA) saying the Government’s “political choices” are leading to patients “dying unnecessarily”.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats also criticised the Government for inaction over recent days, with the latter calling for Parliament to be recalled to discuss the situation.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said the NHS and social care have been backed with up to £14.1 billion additional funding over the next two years plus an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharges this winter.

He added: “The Health Secretary and ministers have met with unions several times and have been clear their door remains open to further discuss how we can work together to improve the working lives of NHS staff.”

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