North West Ambulance staff are threatening to walk out over a new protocol they claim has forced them to make ‘hazardous and exhausting’ blue-light journeys for miles across the region.
The system, introduced by bosses in a bid to tackle patient waiting times, means crews can be called anywhere across the region with up to 40 minutes’ driving time.
Slammed for ‘failing both patients and staff’, it’s led to a joint call from Unite the union, GMB and Unison for bosses at North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) NHS Trust to change the procedure amid pleas for more funding, crews and vehicles.
The three unions will now hold a consultative ballot of their members in the next month, which could lead to a full-scale industrial action ballot, including the option to strike.
It follows an arduous year for crews, who have stoically dealt with unprecedented patient numbers amid the pandemic, leading at the start of the year to the service being moved to the highest alert level, and in February to the army being called in to help.
Unite branch secretary Neil Cosgrove said: “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.”
All three unions unions have accused managers at the NWAS NHS Trust of “failing both patients and staff” following the implementation of a new system.
With the trust covering 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 two calls; only to then find themselves relieved by a more local ambulance team.
There are an estimated 5,000 999 calls to the trust every single day, more than 50 per cent of these are identified as category two.
These calls are classed as an emergency for a potentially serious condition that may require rapid assessment, urgent on-scene intervention and urgent transport.
Unite regional officer Gary Owen said: “We are working closely with the GMB and Unison, as well as the RCN, to address this serious issue which is caused by a lack of funding, and shortage of ambulances and trained crews.
“Our members, who have been in the Covid-19 frontline for the last 16 months, are feeling drained by these long journeys which can be called off if a local crew suddenly becomes available.
“Physical assaults on ambulance staff are documented to be on the rise; these delays in reaching patients can only increase that risk, which is avoidable and totally unacceptable.”
Unite representatives say they hope to enter into constructive talks with NWAS bosses before any strike action takes place.
NWAS medical director Chris Grant told LancsLive that talks with the unions were already ongoing and changes put in place.
He 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 two incident.
“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.”
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