It’s time the PM ditched the pretence and came clean with the public, says UNISON

If the government has no intention of resolving the NHS dispute, the prime minister must come clean and admit to the public that many more months of disruption are on the cards, says UNISON today (Thursday).

Ministers say they only want to talk about the NHS wage rise due in April. But the current round of strikes is over the government’s failure to tackle the growing staffing emergency and pay health workers properly this financial year, says the union.

By refusing point blank to discuss the issue at the heart of the dispute, the prime minister is condemning the public to escalating strikes, with more health workers and unions likely to join in the coming weeks, says UNISON.

Tomorrow (Friday) ambulance workers belonging to UNISON in five services across England (London, Yorkshire, the South West, North West and North East), will walk out for a fourth time. 

And next week UNISON ballots are due to close involving an additional 13,000 health workers, including staff at the five other ambulance services in England.

Despite this potential escalation, the government is still refusing to convene talks, says UNISON. Ministers want everyone to await the outcome of the NHS pay review body, but at best that’s not likely to report before May, the union says.

New figures from NHS England suggest 137,000 appointments have been cancelled since the strikes began last December. At this rate, as many as 250,000 patients could face disruption by late spring, should the government allow the dispute to drag on needlessly, warns UNISON.

It’s not even as if the prime minister has far to look to see how easy it is to do things rather differently, says UNISON.

Discussions between governments and health unions in Scotland and Wales have seen strikes paused and improved pay offers for NHS staff. Now talks between fire service employers and firefighters mean yet another strike threat has been lifted.

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “Dialogue can achieve great things. The prime minister should give it a go. Governments elsewhere in the UK have shown it’s good to talk to unions. That’s the only way disputes get resolved.

“Rishi Sunak says his door is open but without an invite to that mythical negotiating table, NHS staff have no choice but to go on striking.

“Ambulance workers are desperate to get back to work, care for people and save lives. But they’re equally determined to secure the pay rise that’ll help put the NHS in a much better place.

“The prime minister must ditch the pretence. It’s time to come clean with people and admit the government’s only plan is to sit tight and hope public opinion turns against health workers.

“But that’s unlikely to happen. The public can see that by choosing not to negotiate, the government is condemning them to months of unnecessary disruption.

“Rishi Sunak says the NHS is a priority, but his inaction suggests otherwise. NHS leaders, health staff and patients all want the government to resolve the dispute now, not in many months’ time.

“With the chancellor in hiding, it’s down to the prime minister to step up. Rishi Sunak must stop trying to sit it out, take the hand being offered to him by the unions, settle the dispute and allow the NHS to get back on track.”

Urging the prime minister to resolve the dispute, 111 health worker Melissa Ozcan, who works for the North West Ambulance Service, said: “I’ll never forget an 85-year-old man who’d fallen on the floor, couldn’t get up and had no family nearby to help. It broke my heart to tell him the wait for an ambulance was 11 hours. This polite, lovely man was all alone. 

“People in those situations deteriorate very quickly and the current wait times are dangerous. We wouldn’t be seeing these issues if more staff could be retained. It’s not in my gift to change things but the prime minister can with a decent pay rise.”

Notes to editors:
– UNISON balloted 15,000 workers across the five ambulance services. Details of the pickets being organised are here.
– UNISON is re-balloting ambulance workers at five ambulance services in England (South East Coast, South Central, East of England, West Midlands and East Midlands) and the Welsh Ambulance Service. This began on Friday 6 January and continues until next Thursday (16 February). Also being re-balloted are UNISON members working at NHS Blood and Transplant, London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, Liverpool Women’s Hospital and the North West-based Bridgewater Community Trust.
– UNISON ambulance workers took strike action on 21 December, and again on 11 and 23 January. Friday 10 February is their fourth day of action. Health workers at two Liverpool trusts (the University Hospitals Trust and the city’s Heart and Chest Hospital) first walked out on 21 December and on 23 January. Staff at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence also went on strike on 17 January.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union and the largest union in the NHS and in the ambulance sector, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services – in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.  

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