This week, I, along with thousands of fellow ambulance workers belonging to the Unison union across England, have voted to take strike action. We know it’s a shock – but we’re doing it out of necessity: not just for ourselves, but for the future of the NHS.
I’ve been a paramedic for more than 27 years, and I’ve seen the health service in all kinds of states – but this is the worst I’ve ever known it to be. For the past 12 years, my colleagues and I have said to each other “surely, it can’t get any worse?” and yet here we are.
Diagnosing the issues paramedics face is easy – because they’re the same problems the rest of my NHS colleagues, across various disciplines, are dealing with: dwindling pay, service overloads and a chronic underinvestment in the health service.
Like everyone, paramedics are feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. Though it’s cliché, we often get asked, “Why do you do what you do?” and the answer is just as well-versed: because we want to help people. But with our pay declining in real terms, with NHS bosses in England giving us a measly pay increase equivalent to 72p per hour, when the cost of living is more than 10 per cent, it is becoming increasingly difficult to cope.
Ultimately, I think I’ll be alright – I’m a senior paramedic, living with a partner who’s in work, and have four grown children – but it really gets to me, knowing that many of my colleagues with young children are actively struggling to put food on the table for their kids, let alone themselves. Much has been made about the “choice” between “heating or eating”. I’ve been made aware of numerous instances of colleagues having to choose between feeding themselves and paying their rent. Staff take on countless overtime (sometimes taking on as many as ten extra shifts a month), and food banks have opened up within hospitals, to keep heads above water.
[See also: How an NHS doctor burns out]
This simply isn’t sustainable – not least in the context of many of us still recovering from the scars of the pandemic. Many of us paid the price: I was signed off of work for three months because of stress induced by working on the front line during the pandemic. I couldn’t sleep, eat or engage in anything properly. I just closed down within myself.
Two years later, and the general burnout among NHS staff and paramedics continues. Much of the backlogs highlighted in elective care are also reflective of the state of my field. When I first started in the service, we’d attend anywhere between seven and ten patients in a single shift. Now, a lack of staffing, beds and infrastructure means that ambulances often become an extension of A&E, with crews having to stay with patients for as long as ten hours. It means that we’re not always there to help others in dire need.
This isn’t the fault of the ambulance service, crews on the road or the hospitals – this way of operating just isn’t safe for anyone: both staff and patients. Doing what we do, in the conditions we do it in – for 12, sometimes even 16 hours per shift – is it any wonder that staff are leaving the NHS in record numbers? With the deteriorating state of our hospitals an open secret, it should come as no surprise that, despite there being 133,000 vacancies in the health service, the NHS is struggling to recruit. As an institution, the health service is bleeding out.
My colleagues and I haven’t taken the decision to strike lightly. We just want a fair wage from what we put in, and to contribute to a service that is healthy on all fronts. Unfortunately, the current government’s problematic and chronic underfunding of the NHS is only compounded by its refusal to listen to the concerns unions are raising about how unsustainable its current way of operating is.
Politicians were happy to and quick enough to engage with us when it was easy for them: smiling and clapping for us during the pandemic. But when push comes to shove, and difficult paths to improve the NHS need to be forged, it seems more smoke and mirrors than anything meaningful.
So, until they engage with us and the striking nurses, along with our other colleagues across the health service, we’ll keep on pushing for better – for our sake, for your sake, and for the sake of the NHS.
This article was originally published on 2 December.