Ambulance staff poised to strike
9:53am Tuesday 19th December 2006 in By Kevin Burchall
POOR working conditions and a dispute over pay have seen ambulance staff in Swindon vote for industrial action.
And that could see paramedics implementing a work-to-rule policy in the new year as they continue to protest about a lack of resources.
Unclean ambulances, one-hour queues to drop patients off at A&E departments and 12-hour shifts with little or no breaks are ripping staff morale to shreds, according to Swindon paramedic Phil Davis, who is the Unison representative for the Great Western Ambulance Service (GWAS) Trust.
Mr Davis says staffing levels are not keeping pace with work levels and that members of the public are putting an unnecessary strain on the service by dialling 999 because they can't get hold of their doctor.
Staff unrest culminated in 85 per cent of the trust's Unison ambulance workers voting in favour of work to rule industrial action and 50.5 per cent calling for outright strike action.
"There are lots of issues that staff are not happy about - we are under extreme pressure," Mr Davis explained.
"For the last 10 years our workload has gone up by 10 per cent every year and staffing levels have not kept pace.
"Ten years ago in Swindon we were able to put a paramedic in 90 per cent of our vehicles all of the time - we can't do that now because we just don't have the staff.
"People cannot get hold of a doctor for love nor money so we are getting more and more calls from the public.
"The pressure on us is enormous and some people can work a whole 12-hour shift and not get a meal break because they keep going from job to job."
Mr Davis said that although the NHS initiative Agenda for Change had reduced the normal working week from 40 hours to 37 and a half hours, the trust had introduced a condition not to pay staff for any break entitlements.
He added that staff were also in dispute over bank holiday payments.
The Adver revealed on Saturday how disgruntled ambulance workers set up a blog to air their concerns to management at the trust.
One paramedic described the current situation as a "nightmare", partly because call-outs in Swindon had doubled in the last few years.
Great Western Ambulance Service NHS Trust was created in April as a result of a merger between Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire ambulance services.
The new trust, which serves more than two million people, was set up to make the ambulance service more efficient.
But Mr Davis says that staff have yet to see any improvements.
He said: "We have had to queue outside GWH with patients because there are no beds and that just leads to frustration because we want to be out there doing our job.
"We were also told that vehicles would be cleaned out properly, but that still hasn't happened.
"We will have a union meeting in the new year and discuss what action we are going to take, but I think we will be looking at some sort of work to rule action.
"The last time we had any strike action was during 1989 and 1990 and before that it was 1978 so it is very rare that this happens."
The Great Western Service Ambulance Trust's head of communications, Melanie Chiswell, told the Adver on Friday that a newsletter had been sent out to employees urging them to contact the trust with any concerns over working conditions.
The trust was last night considering its position over the possible industrial action.
Ambulance staff have spoken of their poor working conditions via the Swindon Advertiser's website. On Saturday we reported how workers had set up the online blog www.greatwesternambulance.blog.co.uk to air their grievances about the service. One poster described the trust's ambulance stations as being in a "state of neglect". The post read: "Any health and safety official would have a field day in every station. For example, most of the roofs leak, electrical systems are overloaded, sanitation and ablution areas are filthy as are the ambulances due to staff not having time off to clean them." Another post said: "It's management that are making lives difficult. There is never any praise for its staff doing a good job, just hassle and trouble when we mess up (which is very rarely!). "Also if the Government actually educated the public on what an emergency ambulance should be used for then maybe we could care for our patients properly."
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