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20 December 2022

Who will blink first in the NHS strikes?

Rishi Sunak claims he is ready to hold out for months, but that could leave him badly isolated.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Industrial action in the NHS intensifies tomorrow as workers in nine ambulance trusts go on strike over pay.

The walkouts, coordinated by the GMB, Unison and Unite unions, will involve paramedics, control room staff and support workers and, despite the action being only hours away, it is not yet clear what type of incidents staff will still be attended to.

Under strike legislation, life-preserving care must be provided during the industrial action. Ambulance staff will attend category 1 calls, which involve the most life-threatening cases. But it has not yet been determined in all nine trusts which category 2 calls will qualify and whether they will include, say, cases where an elderly person has had a fall or stroke patients if the emergency is not deemed “time critical”.

There is a real risk that someone may die as a result. The government has drafted in army personnel to cover for ambulance staff but many people will end up travelling to A&E, which is already under pressure, themselves.

The unions have urged the government to negotiate on pay, while Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, are fielding pleas from Tory backbenchers to soften their hardline stance and avert the strikes. It really is not clear who will blink first. The Prime Minister gave an interview to the Daily Mail overnight saying he would hold out against what he called “unreasonable” pay demands for months if necessary.

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Support for strikes by paramedics, and indeed nurses, whose pay has been eroding in real terms since 2010, remains high. The wave of strikes this winter also includes rail workers, postal workers, job centre staff, border staff and firefighters. Is Sunak really prepared to set himself against all these people and will he regret it if he does?

The Prime Minister has perhaps made the judgement that it is better to take a position and stick to it, rather than take each dispute as it comes, but the risk he runs in such a conflict is leaving himself very isolated when the public wants someone to blame.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Even in a season of goodwill, I look back in anger at the Tory mess that was 2022]

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