Ambulance workers are staging strikes across England and Wales because they are “genuinely concerned for public safety”, staff have said from the picket lines.
Workers have warned that patients are suffering because staff are “leaving in droves” due to poor pay and conditions.
They warned of patients dying “all the time” because emergency workers cannot get to them or they are not getting treatment in a timely fashion.
Paramedic Katie Nelson described feeling “dejected and depressed” at the end of each shift.
Speaking from a GMB union picket line at West Midlands Ambulance Service’s Donnington ambulance station near Telford, Shropshire, the 35-year-old told the PA news agency: “We’re on strike because we are genuinely concerned about public safety.
“When people are leaving the NHS in droves. members of staff aren’t staying, they’re disillusioned, they’re disheartened, they’re fed up with the situation as it currently is and there’s no incentive to stay.
“The pay is not rising in line with inflation and, as a result, our patients are suffering, and that’s what we want to change.” Describing her day-to-day work, she said: “It’s not unusual for us to go out to our first patient of the day when we start our shift and that patient might have been waiting in excess of 12 hours for an ambulance. They then need to go to hospital and we might spend that full 12-hour (shift) outside the hospital waiting to hand that patient over.
“I’m sitting outside a hospital hearing shouts for emergency calls that we can’t respond to because I’ve got a patient in the back of my ambulance.
“And that’s day in, day out, and you go home and you feel dejected and depressed that you’re not doing the job that you signed up for.
“This is not how the ambulance service should be.
“And yet somehow you have to go home, get up and do it all again the next day, and it’s disheartening and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
“So that’s what we’re trying to change.” On the response to emergencies during strike action, Ms Nelson said: “I speak for most of us when we say we’re still responding to the highest category of calls.
“I don’t think we can in good conscience not respond to the people who need us the most. But that’s the point of the ambulance - we’re there for emergencies and we will continue to respond to those emergencies.”
Meanwhile, ambulance technician Jacs Murphy said: “We are at the stage where we are losing staff day after day after day, because they cannot keep going on the way they are going, and that means we can’t look after our patients.”
Speaking from the same Shropshire picket line, the 54-year-old added: “People are dying, we see it all the time.
“We are seeing people not getting the treatment that they need at the time they need it, so they’re becoming more sick and then eventually they die because we can’t get to them, or they’re not getting the surgeries that they need in time because of the underfunding, because of the understaffing.
“Eventually, if we don’t have the funding for the NHS and we don’t look after the public as well and the staff as well, I feel we will lose the NHS - it’ll go private.
“When it goes private, we’ll be paying for ambulances, we’ll be paying for everything that we need, and there will be people that can’t afford it. They’re the ones that will suffer.” On the picket line in Leeds, emergency care assistant Bronte Williams said: “Working conditions are not great. It’s not fair for the patients or the crews that we work with.
“I think things have got to change.” Ms Williams added: “Also, patients are losing their faith in the NHS.” She said: “The one thing that does get to me are the waiting times at hospital.
“We’ve been usually waiting an hour to hand over. It never used to be like that.
“The NHS is pushed to its limits and we can’t keep up with it.” Ms Williams continued: “We need better working conditions, we need a pay rise and we just need more faith from the Government as well.” Also in Leeds, ambulance practitioner Lyndsay Jephson said: “Patients are in corridors, we’re waiting in corridors.
“I’ve waited myself up to six hours, my colleagues have waited up to 16 hours in a corridor with patients who need urgent medical attention.
“It’s not fair and it’s not good enough for our patients.” Ms Jephson added: “Patients are dying while they are waiting for appointments and that is what this is about.” She continued: “Me and my colleagues do not want to be striking. We want to be out there dealing with patients.” Speaking at a Unison picket line at the London Ambulance Service headquarters in Waterloo, motorcycle paramedic Richard Kingham, told PA: “In my job I am waiting with very sick people for help to come for much longer than usual.
“If you’re with someone who’s having a heart attack and you can’t get them to hospital because there is no ambulance to send, then that is very, very scary.” Unison union head of health Sara Gorton said staff are out on icy picket lines because their jobs have been “compromised on a day-to-day basis”.
“Unfortunately, on a strike day it does mean that the services are impacted - strikes have to have an impact in order for them to be taken seriously,” she told BBC Breakfast.
“And that’s why it’s been such a difficult decision for lots of those people to vote for strike action, to take it.
“And it’s why it’s so frustrating that, after two days of strike action and some positive progress, that the Government hasn’t done what they need to do in order to get the strikes called off - which is to commit to putting extra funding in and to sit down and start formal talks.
“Ultimately none of those people that are out on strike want to be there - they want to be doing the jobs that they love, and those jobs have just been compromised on a day-to-day basis.” All the services involved in the strikes have emergency cover which, “as a rule of thumb”, will see all life-threatening incidents - also known as category 1 calls - responded to, Ms Gorton said.
Category 2 calls, which can include heart attacks and strokes, will be assessed and if there is “risk to life and limb” ambulance staff will leave picket lines to respond.
Meanwhile, Unite union general secretary Sharon Graham told Sky News: “Five hundred people are dying every single week waiting for an ambulance in the richest economy in the world. That is an absolute national disgrace.
“Of course (the dispute) is absolutely about pay, but it’s also about the very existence of the NHS.
“How could we ever have a situation, when no strike is taking place whatsoever, that 500 people are dying in Britain every week waiting for an ambulance? That is unbelievable.
“So we have to put a stake in the ground, we have to defend the NHS, and the public want us to do that.”