LONDON -- Around 25,000 U.K. ambulance workers went on strike Wednesday, walking out for the second time since December in an ongoing dispute with the government over pay.
The industrial action by paramedics, drivers and call handlers was the latest in a wave of strikes in recent months that has crippled the country's rail network on some days and strained the U.K.'s overburdened public health system.
Health officials have warned that the impact of Wednesday's strike will be worse than the one held in December because more staff, including call handlers, are walking out. People were advised to call in cases of life-threatening emergencies — such as cardiac arrest or a serious road accident — and ambulances will still respond to such situations.
But less urgent cases won't be prioritized and some people will have to make their own way to hospitals.
Union leaders say some of the lowest-paid public health workers, including call handlers and drivers, are close to falling below the national minimum wage.
“When people accuse us of putting the public at risk, I would say it is this government that has put the public at risk by refusing consistently to talk to us. There is no offer on the table," Christina McAnea, general secretary of the UNISON union, told striking workers outside an ambulance station in Sheffield in northern England.
Scores of other workers, including nurses, train and bus drivers and postal workers, have in recent months joined the strikes — the biggest in decades in Britain — to demand better salaries as inflation soars to the highest levels the U.K. has seen since the early 1980s. Inflation rose to 11.1% in October, before coming down slightly to 10.7% in November.
Wages, especially in the public sector, haven't kept pace with the skyrocketing cost of living.
The strike action comes at a time of severe strain for the U.K.'s National Health Service, which has reported record demand on urgent and emergency care services this winter.
Officials have blamed the pressures on a surge of flu and other winter viruses after two years of COVID-19 restrictions. But the opposition Labour Party and many health workers say the problems run much deeper. Years of underfunding and staff shortages partly caused by a post-Brexit lack of European workers in the U.K. have combined to cause a public health crisis, they say.
Paramedics have described waiting outside hospitals on a daily basis for patients to be seen, and patients being left in hospital corridors for hours waiting to be transferred.
“People are waiting longer because we can’t get to them. It’s a lack of capacity in every department," said Ian Grimble, an assistant ambulance practitioner.
Government officials met withtrade union leaders on Monday, but there has been no breakthrough in negotiations. Union leaders have also been angered by government plans to introduce legislation to set “minimum service levels” for firefighters, ambulance services and railways that must be maintained during a strike.
“No one denies the unions freedom to strike, but it is also important to balance that with people’s right to have access to lifesaving health care,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told lawmakers on Wednesday.