This week I, along with thousands of fellow Unison ambulance workers across England, have voted to take strike. We know it’s a shock, but we do it out of necessity: not just for ourselves, but for the future of the National Health Service.
I have been a paramedic for over 27 years and have seen the health service in all kinds of states but this is the worst I have ever seen. For the past 12 years, my colleagues and I have said to ourselves “surely, it can’t get any worse?” And yet here we are.
Diagnosing the problems that paramedics face is easy, because they are the same problems that the rest of my colleagues in the NHS face, in various disciplines: declining pay, overloaded services and a chronic lack of investment in the health service.
Like everyone, paramedics are feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis. Although it is a cliché, we are often 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 falling in real terms, with NHS bosses in England giving us a measly pay rise. 72p equivalent per hour, when the cost of living is more than 10 percent, it becomes increasingly difficult to cope.
Ultimately, I think I’ll be fine – I’m a senior paramedic, living with a working couple and four adult children – but it really affects me knowing that many of my colleagues with young children are actively fighting to put food on the table for their children. children, much less for themselves. Much has been said about the “choice” between “heat or eat”. I have been told numerous cases of colleagues having to choose between feeding themselves and paying rent. Staff put in countless overtime hours (sometimes up to ten extra shifts a month) and food banks have been opened inside hospitals to keep their heads afloat.
This is simply not sustainable, especially in the context of many of us still reeling from the scars of the pandemic. Many of us paid the price: I was taken off work for three months due to the stress induced by working on the front lines during the pandemic. I couldn’t sleep, eat or do anything properly. I just closed inside myself.
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Two years later, general burnout among NHS staff and paramedics continues. Much of the delays outstanding in elective care they also reflect the state of my field. When I started in the service, we saw between seven and ten patients in a single shift. Now, a lack of staff, beds and infrastructure means that ambulances often become an extension of A&E, with crews having to stay with patients for up to ten hours. It means that we are not always there to help others in dire need.
This is not the fault of the ambulance service, the staff on the road or the hospitals: this way of operating is simply not safe for anyone: staff and patients alike. Doing what we do, under the conditions we do it, for 12, sometimes even 16 hours a shift, is it any wonder staff are leaving the NHS in record numbers? With the state of disrepair in 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 to death.
My colleagues and I have not taken the decision to attack lightly. We only want a fair salary for what we contribute and contribute to a healthy service on all fronts. Unfortunately, the chronic and problematic underfunding of the NHS by the current government is only compounded by their refusal to listen to concerns being raised by unions about how unsustainable their current way of operating is.
Politicians were happy and quick enough to interact with us when it was easy for them: smile and clap at us during the pandemic. But when the time comes, and hard paths need to be forged to improve the NHS, it seems more like smoke and mirrors than anything meaningful.
So until they commit to us and the striking nurses, along with our other colleagues in the health service, we will continue to push for improvement, for our sake, for their sake and for the sake of the NHS.
[See also: Can the NHS clear its backlog?]