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Strike restrictions could make disruption worse, admits government

Published on: 22 Feb 2023

Introducing minimum levels of service during ambulance strikes could have a ‘significant negative impact’ if staff instead opted for other forms of industrial action, such as overtime bans, the government’s own impact assessment of the proposals has warned.

The new rules could also prolong any dispute with unions having an “incentive” to “cause disruption in order to encourage employers to reach a favourable settlement in response to a dispute.” Productivity could also be negatively affected if rostered staff withdrew good will.

The government’s proposals – which are currently being consulted on – would see some ambulance staff told they have to work during strikes. They would be informed through a “work notice” and risk disciplinary action if they did not comply. Unions would also have a duty to take “reasonable steps” to ensure those named in the work notices complied with them. There could be greater tension between employers and unions, the assessment says.

The impact assessment - which was published yesterday, nearly two weeks after the consultation started - says there would be some positive impacts such as greater certainty about which calls would be responded to, greater consistency between services and a reduction in the time and costs needed to agree voluntary derogations. However, it notes that where voluntary derogations have been in place, compliance with these is generally high and says employers may lack confidence in issuing work notices or may prefer to continue with voluntary derogations rather than issuing them.

The assessment also says the level of cover provided for in minimum services levels is actually less than would have been agreed through voluntary derogations during recent disputes. Most of this winter’s strikes have seen unions and management agree extensive derogations, ensuring all category 1 calls and many category 2s were answered. However, this week the GMB said it would only guarantee to answer category 1 calls in two ambulance trusts – although it added it was likely other serious calls would be reached as well.

The impact assessment for the overarching bill – which covers other public services, not just ambulances - has also been criticised by the Regulatory Policy Committee, and independent watchdog which scrutinises government regulations. The RPC said it was “not fit for purpose” as the minimum service level would be defined later by secondary legislation. The bill is currently passsing through the Lords. 

New strikes announced for March

Unison has announced a new strike for 8 March, involving ambulance workers at nine trusts, as well as nurses, blood collection workers, healthcare assistants, cleaners, and porters.

This will be the first time ambulance staff at the East of England ambulance service have gone on strike, with Unison revealing last week it had succesfully reballoted the trust. Unison members at South Central, West Midlands and East Midlands ambulance services will also be striking for the first time, although staff at other unions at these providers have been involved in previous strikes.

They are joining members at the London, Yorkshire, the North East, North West and South West ambulance services, who have been involved in strike action with Unison previously. Only staff at South East Coast ambulance service will not be taking part.

The news comes less than 24 hours after the Royal College of Nursing revealed it would be pausing its strike action while it negotiated pay with the government. Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Choosing to speak to one union and not others won’t stop the strikes and could make a bad situation much worse.

“The entire NHS team is absolutely determined to stand firm for better patient care. They’ll be furious at the government’s failure to invite their union in for talks. Not least because a deal just for nurses cannot possibly work, and nurses belong to other unions too.”