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A&E braced for patient influx post-ambulance strikes

With paramedics and ambulance workers joining nurses on strike, we examine the impact on the NHS in the new year.

Hospitals in England and Wales were quieter than usual yesterday due to a strikes by paramedics, call handlers, and technicians. Only the most serious emergency calls were responded to as patients were left wondering the worst case situation if they became seriously ill or injured.

The strike, which has seen thousands of paramedics and other emergency care staff walk out, resulted in an increase in people calling the non-emergency 111 line, being referred to out-of-hospital services.

The ambulance strike is one of many in health and social care across the UK. Nurses in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already staged two strikes this month and have threatened further disruption unless progress is made in pay negotiations. In Scotland, members of the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives are also planning to strike after rejecting a pay offer of an average increase of 7.5 percent.

Jason Killens, Chief Executive of the Welsh Ambulance Service, where 50 percent of ambulance service workers went on strike, warned of a rise in demand for ambulances after fewer people called 999.

Andrew Morgan, the Chief Executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals, said there had probably been more walk-ins on Wednesday, which can create “more of an issue” because staff do not know people are coming in or know what is wrong with them. He also predicted that Thursday could be a “very difficult day” due to an influx of people who thought they should not call an ambulance or stay away from emergency departments on Wednesday.

Patient influx in the new year

The delay of patients receiving emergency care has brought concern that NHS services may face a further influx in the new year.

Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, expressed concern over the impact of the strikes on the already strained NHS and called for both trade unions and the Government to engage in negotiations to avoid further strikes in January. He said:

“We coped as well as we could yesterday but it is incredibly important to recognise we cannot go on coping with industrial action in the NHS because each time it happens there are direct consequences and also all sorts of knock on effects.”

Saffron Cordery, the interim CEO of NHS Providers, also warned of a rebound effect in the coming days as large numbers of people turn to the health service, similar to the demand seen after a bank holiday. Cordery also said that category-one calls, which are life-threatening situations, “had been answered” during the strike, and that she had heard reports of union members “coming off the picket line” to answer those calls. However, she cautioned that Thursday and Friday were likely to be “incredibly difficult days across the NHS” due to a rise in demand and an increase in people who had chosen not to use hospital services on Wednesday despite needing them.

Government response

The government seem to have stood their ground so far, as both parties have yet to reach an agreement. Health Secretary, Steve Barclay has accepted the significant impacts of the strikes and admitted that the government’s capacity to maintain its contingency response to the strokes was “obviously constrained”.

He said: “we’re saying to the public to exercise their common sense in terms of what activities they do, being mindful of those pressures that are on the system”.

Doubling down on his refusal to engage in pay talks, Barclay said: “We’re already three-quarters of the way through this year so what you’d be saying is, go all the way back retrospectively to April to unpick what has been an independent decision by the pay review body.

“But we’re already now under way in terms of next year’s pay review process, the remit letters have gone out. Obviously that body will then consider the changes in inflation, the other issues that have been raised, all as part of the normal process of looking at next year’s pay, so we should look forward.”

Final thought

The ambulance strikes join a wave of strikes across the public sector – impacting the lives of millions across the country. With the cost-of-living crisis, global inflation and austerity measures for the foreseeable future – the break down in relations between the Government and public sector workers looks to continue.

With already record pressure on the NHS, this breakdown of negotiation will add further pressure in the new year as a backlog of emergency care is added. The Government’s will to reduce public sector spending will truly be challenged in the coming weeks.

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