‘EXHAUSTED’ north west ambulance staff to consider a strike over excessive mileage, says Unite

North West ambulance staff are to hold a consultative ballot over whether to proceed to an industrial action ballot about a new system that is leaving them exhausted because of excessive mileage.

Unite the union, the GMB and Unison have called on bosses at the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) NHS Trust to change the procedure that can see ambulance workers called anywhere across the region with up to 40 minutes driving time. The Royal College of Nursing has also expressed ‘deep concern’.

The three unions will now hold a consultative ballot of their members in the next month to see if they then wish to have a full-scale industrial action ballot, including the option to strike - after accusing the trust management of ‘failing both patients and staff’.

Unite branch secretary Neil Cosgrove said: “We are hearing of crews driving 40 minutes, under emergency conditions which is hazardous at any time, and then to be sent somewhere else and drive for another 40 minutes. This can be repeated several times in one shift.

“The ambulance crews are seeing and treating fewer patients, but driving for longer times and further distances.

“For some time, Unite has raised serious concerns with the management about the way in which these changes have been introduced and are now currently operating.

“They are having a significant adverse impact on our members’ physical and mental health and welfare, as well as posing a significant risk to patient care. This is no longer acceptable.

"In essence, there are not enough ambulances and staff to meet the ever-increasing demand."

With the trust’s services covering the conurbations of Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Merseyside, Cumbria and Lancashire, the new system can often mean ambulances driving for miles across the region in ‘blue-light conditions’ for category 2 calls; only to then find themselves relieved by a more local ambulance team.

North West Ambulance Service’s Medical Director, Chris Grant said. “This procedure, known as EOC0001, has been in operation for over 12 months and allows ambulance crews to travel up to 40 minutes to attend a category 2 incident - these are serious, but not immediately life-threatening incidents including strokes, seizures and burns.

“However, due to a significant increase in 999 calls, we have recently fully implemented the procedure, as these patients are frequently waiting longer than they should for a response.

“All our patients need us to reach them as quickly as we can during their time of need, if local crews aren’t free, when there are available resources just that little bit further away or out of the area – we feel we should send the closest resource we can.

“So far, the results are positive as we have seen fewer reported Serious Untoward Incidents (SUIs) within this category.

“However, we recognise concerns raised by staff and trade union colleagues about the longer travelling times. As a result, discussions were held this week about amending the policy, and a lower 30 minute time has been agreed with the trade unions.

“We’re are currently not aware of any formal announcement for a ballot for strike action by the unions, although negotiations are still ongoing.”

There are an estimated 4,500-5,000 999 calls to the trust every day – more than 50 per cent of which are identified as category 2. These calls are classed as an emergency for a potentially serious condition that may require rapid assessment, urgent on-scene intervention and/or urgent transport.

Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said: “This is extremely worrying both for patients and for the front line ambulance crews who have endured an exhausting last 16 months through the pandemic.

“This all comes back to an issue that I’ve been raising with government ministers now for the last three years which is that there simply aren’t enough ambulances covering our area and the devastating impact that has on waiting times for people who need emergency care and for the staff who are put under even more pressure as a result.

“The Government need to wake up to and act.”