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Striking ambulance staff must cover all ‘emergency’ calls, say ministers

Published on: 10 Feb 2023

Ambulance staff will need to respond to category 2 calls during strike action under new government proposals.

The Department of Health and Social Care yesterday launched a consultation on minimum service levels in ambulance services. It comes as industrial action continues across the NHS and as legislation to ensure minimum services levels in key industries during strikes is making its way through Parliament

The consultation document read: “Our proposal is that calls classed as life-threatening and emergency incidents would always receive an appropriate clinical response when there is strike action.

“In England, currently, these calls are classified as category 1 (immediately life-threatening) and category 2 (emergency) calls…

“On strike action days, some workers would continue their work to ensure that these calls can be answered and responded to appropriately to protect the life and health of patients.”

The proposals added services must also have “adequate capacity and resourcing” in call control rooms, to ensure all emergency 999 calls to ambulance services were answered.

At present, provision for category 1 calls during a strike is covered by a national derogation, but it is up to trusts to arrange local derogations with unions as to how they will respond to category 2 calls. In previous strikes, this has led to a lot of variation in what calls are responded to in different parts of the country.  

In the consultation’s foreward, health secretary Steve Barclay wrote: “These negotiations take time, and their outcome is uncertain, meaning that service providers cannot plan ahead. 

“I remain concerned that in some instances these voluntary agreements have not been agreed until the last minute, or there has been disagreement or uncertainty about what has been agreed. I do not think that uncertainty is acceptable – for staff, for employers, for the public – especially when it comes to ambulance services.

“That is why we are considering whether we should bring forward minimum service levels in ambulance services, so that we will all have the much-needed assurance that life-saving and emergency care will always continue through strike action, and employers will be better able to plan for strike action.”

The document said category 2 calls included “serious time-sensitive incidents such as strokes and heart attacks”. 

The proposals come during a week which has seen strikes across several groups in the NHS, including two days’ worth of ambulance worker strikes.

In particular, unions are protesting the government’s Agenda for Change pay award for 2022-23, which gave all NHS staff a minimum of £1,400 – significantly below current levels of inflation.

Mr Barclay has insisted unions should engage in “constructive” talks for the 2023-24 pay round.

The consultation will close on 4 May.