Ambulance response times will be “incredibly stretched” when thousands of 999 call handlers, paramedics and other staff go on strike, an NHS leader has said.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said NHS trusts would do all they could to mitigate risks to patients but the health service was already experiencing a challenging time.
Unison announced on Tuesday that thousands of 999 call handlers, ambulance technicians, paramedics and their colleagues working for ambulance services in the North East, North West, London, Yorkshire and the South West are set to strike, probably before Christmas.
The union is calling for action on pay and a big rise in staff numbers, warning that unless these things happen, services will continue to decline.
Figures show that ambulance trusts in England repeatedly miss targets for reaching patients in an emergency.
The average response time in September for the most urgent incidents, defined as calls from people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries, was nine minutes and 19 seconds, against a seven-minute target.
Ambulances also took an average of 47 minutes and 59 seconds in September to respond to emergency calls such as burns, epilepsy and strokes.
This was well above the target of 18 minutes.
Ms Cordery told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “there’s going to be an incredibly testing time ahead this winter” when nurses and ambulance workers go on strike.
She added: “What we can say is that trust leaders up and down the country have tried and tested plans in place to mitigate the risks of these strikes, and they really understand the situation that NHS staff are in, in terms of receiving a below inflation pay award, and the real pressures and stresses that they’ve been working under.
“But what their main focus is at the moment is making sure that they can really run with as safe a service as possible and that’s what they’ve been preparing for.
“I think in terms of the ambulance strike, we know the challenges already of not having enough paramedics, call handlers available, because we’ve seen the challenges to ambulance handover times that we have at the moment in terms of not being able to transfer patients from ambulances into A&E departments and the challenges that brings when they can’t get back out on the road.
“Additional challenges on top of that, I think, will make response times incredibly stretched.
“But ambulance trust leaders will be putting in place as many measures as possible to mitigate the risks of those actions.”
She said “industrial action brings with it its own challenges and its own risks” but “everything will be done to avoid those risks”.
She added: “But we know it’s an immensely pressured, it’s an immensely challenging situation at the moment, particularly with strike action coming from all parts of the NHS.”
Asked about the Army, Ms Cordery said it was “probably clear” that any help given would be “at the margins”.
She added that “we will really welcome their support but that won’t play a central role in keeping the ambulance service going”.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said on Tuesday: “The decision to take action and lose a day’s pay is always a tough call. It’s especially challenging for those whose jobs involve caring and saving lives.
“But thousands of ambulance staff and their NHS colleagues know delays won’t lessen, nor waiting times reduce, until the Government acts on wages. That’s why they’ve taken the difficult decision to strike.
“Patients will always come first and emergency cover will be available during any strike. But unless NHS pay and staffing get fixed, services and care will continue to decline.
“The public knows health services won’t improve without huge increases in staffing and wants the Government to pay up to save the NHS. It’s high time ministers stopped using the pay review body as cover for their inaction.”
Health workers belonging to Unison and working in Northern Ireland have already voted to take action over pay and staffing.
In Scotland, Unison is recommending its NHS members vote to accept the latest offer from the Scottish Government which will see a £2,205 increase for the lowest paid staff, and more for those on higher bands.
That vote closes on December 12. In Wales, the threshold necessary for strike action was not met anywhere, and its health committee is to meet to decide on its next steps.