Next week’s ambulance strikes have been suspended as all three major unions have agreed to talks with the government, saying they have been told there is additional cash on the table.
GMB, Unison and Unite were all due to strike next week – GMB and Unite on Monday and Unison and Unite on Wednesday – with some areas expecting union members to cover only the most serious “category 1” calls. This would have represented a significant escalation of the dispute and had caused concern among senior ambulance managers.
Late on Friday, GMB said the Department of Health and Social Care had agreed to “discuss pay for both this year and next year – as well as improvements to other terms and conditions”. Unison confirmed it was also suspending strike action shortly after, while Unite announced on Sunday afternoon it was also pausing its industrial action.
Both the GMB and Unison said that there was an assurance of “additional cash for both years above existing budgets”, and GMB said it had been assured any agreement would respect the existing Agenda for Change structure. The DHSC has not confirmed this, saying only that it wants a “fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role of NHS workers, the wider economic pressures facing the UK and the Prime Minister’s priority to halve inflation”.
One senior ambulance trust source said the planned escalation in strike action, with two unions saying they would not respond to category two calls, and another saying it would work to rule, “got Steve Barclay’s attention”. The source said unions had realised the Royal College of Nursing’s “no derogations approach” had been effective in bringing the health secretary to the table.
Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said: “GMB ambulance workers announced a tightening of the derogations for cover on strike days. Less than 24 hours later we received a letter from the secretary of state for health, Steve Barclay, inviting us and other unions to pay talks. This is a huge shift from the government, who for months have refused to consider negotiations on pay.”
Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said: “Whether the talks signal the beginning of the end of the current dispute will emerge in the coming days… when we get in the room, we’ll quickly learn whether the talks can be meaningful. If not, Unison will be forced to resume strike action. Nobody wants that.”
The postponement of next week’s strikes comes after the RCN entered into talks with the government last week and postponed a countrywide strike. This led to accusations that the government was pursuing a “divide and rule” approach by singling out nurses but ignoring other workers.
The DHSC said: “We’re pleased that Agenda for Change unions representing the majority of ambulance workers, nurses, physiotherapists, porters, cleaners and other non-medical staff have agreed to pause strikes and enter a process of intensive talks. We want to start these talks as soon as possible and are ready to meet over the weekend.”
However, there is no sign of negotiations on the junior doctors’ 72 hour strike called for 13 to 16 March. This is expected to be more damaging to the NHS than other strike action – partly because no derogations have been agreed.
Further strike action had been planned for 20 March by Unite and the GMB and by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy on 22 March. The CSP has also suspended its action and will join the talks.
Strikes at a number of other NHS organisations next week have also been paused. They include Unison members at NHS Blood and Transplant, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Tavistock and Portman Foundation Trust, Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Liverpool University Hospitals FT, Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital and the Bridgewater Community Trust, and GMB members at Mersey Care and Barnsley Hospital.
NHS Providers chief executive Sir Julian Hartley said: “While progress is now being made in talks with some NHS unions, the prospect of a three day walkout by junior doctors continues to loom large. We hope today’s breakthrough will pave the way for similar negotiations with all other unions planning strikes.
“We are urging the government and unions to pull out all the stops and begin talks immediately so that further disruption to patient care can be avoided.”
Updated 18.55 3 March with DHSC comments. Updated at 17:40 on 5 March after Unite announced it too would be pausing strike action.