UK strikes: Paramedics and nurses have joined Britain’s wave of strikes. How did things get so bad?

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London
CNN
 — 

Another day, another round of strikes in Britain.

As the Christmas holidays approach, railway workers have brought the transport network to a standstill. Border Force staff are preparing to walk out. Postal workers, bus drivers and civil servants are either in the middle of strike action or threatening to strike.

This week, nurses staged their biggest walkout in decades. And on Wednesday, paramedics are on strike in many parts of England, in a particularly bitter dispute that will bring further turmoil to an already ravaged public health system.

The public have been urged to only call ambulances if they absolutely need to. ‘Don’t get so drunk that you end up with an unnecessary visit to A&E,” Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, told the BBC.

But Wednesday’s strike heaps further pressure on the government, which has been accused of disregarding the calls of workers. Health Secretary Steve Barclay told the Daily Telegraph that ambulance workers have “taken a conscious choice to inflict harm on patients,” comments that drew the ire of workers and unions.

A collection of individual disputes across various sectors have coalesced into a broader sense that something has gone very wrong in Britain, with workers saying that their pay, conditions and ability to provide essential services have been compromised by years of cuts and underinvestment.

How have things got to such a nadir?

Thursday’s strike by ambulance workers, who are demanding a pay rise in line with inflation, comes after thousands of nurses walked out on 15 and 20 December.

It is not just health and emergency services that are affected; virtually all forms of travel have been affected in some ways by strike or are expected to be in coming weeks – along with education, the criminal justice system, the postal service and a host of other fields.

  • Railway strikes have been raging for several months and frequently dominate front pages in the UK. The RMT union, which mostly represents guards, ticket examiners and maintenance staff, has called a series of walkouts, including over the Christmas period. ASLEF, which represents train drivers, has also planned action in January. Railway workers want better pay and increased job security.
  • Postal workers with Royal Mail, which is now a private company, are taking action in the run-up to Christmas, affecting deliveries during the busy festive stretch.
  • Border Force workers in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are striking for eight days during the holiday period. The strikes will impact London Heathrow airport, as well as hubs at London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow. Baggage handlers have also walked out on some dates.
  • Bus drivers in London planned a series of strikes throughout December.
  • Several teachers’ unions are consulting their members about striking, after pay offers were rejected. There is already a national teachers’ strike set for Scotland next month.
  • Criminal barristers went on strike earlier in the winter, before voting to accept a pay offer and end the action.

Each workforce has complaints specific to their sectors that have brought them to the picket line. But the wave of strikes must also be viewed in light of the UK’s long-running economic and societal stagnation, which has left workers desperate for a better deal.

A cost of living crisis and soaring inflation have left Britons worse off this year. When adjusted for inflation, wages in the UK have fallen at one of the sharpest rates since records began in 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

And Britain’s public sector workers in particular are bearing the brunt; average pay growth in the private sector was 6.9% in the middle of 2022, compared to 2.7% for the public sector – the ONS said this gulf is “among the largest differences between the private sector and public sector growth rates we have seen.”

Still, for many striking workers, anger can be traced back further than the current economic crises.

Since former Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity program saw budgets for public services slashed, employees have complained of a decline in many of Britain’s local agencies and institutional safety nets.

Funding for local councils and schools slumped over the course of the 2010s, a decade of decline that critics say has held Britain back, leaving a gaping wound in the services parents, children and citizens rely on every day.

The aftershocks of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic further tightened the purse-strings and complicated a cautious effort to emerge from the tight-fisted approach that defined the 2010s.

More recently, instability at the heart of government – Britain is on its fifth Prime Minister in six years – and a disastrous financial program unveiled by shambolic ex-PM Liz Truss have dashed many Brits’ hopes that the public sector will get a boost in the near future.

Strikes in the National Health Service – a pillar of Britain’s national identity and one of the world’s most lauded governmental programs – are rare.

Until this month, the UK’s largest nursing union had never called a walkout in its 106-year history. Wednesday’s ambulance strike is the first such action since 1990.

There are some concerns about the level of service that will continue during the strike. Members of the armed forces are being deployed in an effort to relieve the impact, and health minister Will Quince suggested on BBC Radio that people should avoid contact sport or other “risky activity” while ambulance services are disrupted, comments that were roundly criticized as flippant.

But workers in the NHS have been pushed to the brink in recent years, with a staffing crisis, low pay and skyrocketing waiting lists leaving hospitals and wards crammed full and staff exhausted.

Brits must now wait an average of one hour for an ambulance if they’ve reported a suspected heart attack, stroke or other similar issues, despite an 18-minute national target. The wait for a “Category 1” call, which relates to immediate threats to life, is up to 10 minutes, despite a seven-minute target.

Conditions do not always improve while a patient arrives in hospital, where waiting times are at record levels. Every day, across the country, ambulances can be seen lined up outside emergency departments, waiting to discharge their patients.

In the West Midlands area of England, one person died after an ambulance delay in the whole of 2020. In the first nine months of 2022, that figure had soared to 37, according to the BBC’s Newsnight program, which obtained the figures through a Freedom of Information request.

“The reality is, every day, nurses across the UK are walking into understaffed hospitals,” Andrea Mackay, who has worked as a nurse for seven years at a hospital in southwest England, told CNN on her reasons for striking last week.

“During one of my worst shifts I was the only nurse to 28 unwell children,” added Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse. “It’s not safe and we cannot deliver the care that these children need at times.”

This wave of strikes is the biggest to hit Britain in a decade, and the sheer number of services being affected has drawn comparisons to the so-called winter of discontent of 1978 to 1979.

That period followed bitter pay disputes between the government and both the public and private sector; following her 1979 election victory, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waged a largely victorious battle with many of Britain’s unions, severely diminishing their power.

In reality, the strikes of 2022 have caused a fraction of the impact that those did.

A total of 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the most recent month for which figures are available, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – a far cry from the several million days lost at the end of the 1970s.

But October’s figure is the highest number for any month since 2011, and virtually all pay disputes seem far from resolved, stoking fears that next year will be one of mass disruption.

The government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says it cannot afford the pay demands being made by the public sector unions. In the case of railway strikes, it has said the onus is on private train companies to resolve the disputes – despite the fact that the government controls the purse-strings, having bailed out the network during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the ongoing disruption is a major headache for Sunak, who took over from Truss with the promise of a sensible and restrained approach to Britain’s stuttering economy.

Opinion polls show the government is shouldering much of the blame for the spate of labor unrest, and that the public is generally sympathetic towards striking workers.

Ministers have repeatedly taken a firm line, refusing to bow to the demands of any one union – opening itself up to criticism that it is not making enough effort bring an end to the strife.

Rishi Sunak has resisted unions' demands, but has been accused of not doing enough to end the strikes.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer attacked Sunak on the nursing strike in Parliament last week, telling him that “the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he halted the strike by striking a deal with the RCN.

The industrial action was a “a badge of shame for this government,” Starmer said.

His party, which has historical links to several unions, is walking a delicate line on the strikes; Starmer has refused to explicitly support unions’ demands, but has pointed to their walkouts as evidence that the Conservatives have stalled the economy.

Those arguments will be tested even further over the Christmas period and in the New Year, and public opinion will be vital in strengthening the government’s hand or forcing them to the negotiating table.

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