Striking ambulance workers on the picket line at the North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust on January 23, 2023 in Chorley
On the third day of walkouts from NHS staff – including ambulance workers, paramedics, technicians, call handlers and others in England and Wales – it still doesn’t look like a settlement for striking employees is on the horizon.
Speaking to Radio 4′s Today programme on Monday, Unite’s Sharon Graham explained that the NHS was already in crisis (even before the strikes) and that the government was still refusing to act.
Graham said: “The NHS is literally on its knees and patients are dying every single day unnecessarily because of the crisis in the NHS.”
Explaining why her union members are walking out, which only causes greater disruption, Graham added: “What we’re trying to do is is we’re trying to get the government to negotiate.
It’s been five weeks since the Unite ambulance drivers were out, and in that time there has been literally no meeting about the substantiative issue of pay.
“There’s been lots of conversations about things other than pay. Now there’s conversations about what might happen in the next round of pay.
“They are dancing around their handbags and not coming to the table and negotiating pay.”
NHS workers have been calling for a salary increase more in line with inflation (at 10.5% in December), after years of austerity.
“This is out of frustration,” Graham continued. “I would have thought that, over five weeks, Stephen Barclay and Rishi Sunak could have decided to come to the table and talk about pay.
“I’m concerned, I have to tell you, that they do not want resolution to this dispute.
“I have never had a situation where a CEO of a company, which is what Rishi Sunak is, is not coming to the table himself and trying to deal with this.
“He is missing in action and he needs to get back involved.”
Today programme host Justin Webb asked what she actually meant by saying Sunak didn’t want a resolution, pointing out: “What could possibly be in it for him?”
“I’m seriously thinking there is something more sincere than this,” Graham suggested. “This is an act of self-harm.
“The public are behind the NHS workers getting a pay rise. We have the money for the NHS staff getting a pay rise.
“We are fifth richest economy in the entire world. Why are they not coming to the table?
“I believe they have an agenda in terms of privatisation the NHS.”
Graham also touched on comments from former health secretary, Sajid Javid, who said over the weekend that people should perhaps pay £20 to see a GP, and £66 to go to A&E.
She said: “Sajid Javid’s comments over the weekend weren’t done ‘whoopsie-daisy’ – they were very deliberate, they were a flag to see how it flew.”
"We need to save the NHS, and in order to save the NHS we need to retain the staff we have.. and at the moment we are not able to do that"
Gary Blackburn, a paramedic for over 30 years and a member of @unitetheunion, explains why ambulance workers are on strike today. Solidarity pic.twitter.com/hgONSFDNeu
— Saul Staniforth (@SaulStaniforth) January 23, 2023
She said that she had never been in a situation over the last 30 years where “the people we are trying to get resolution with do not want resolution”, adding: “He’s not even at the table!”
Webb suggested Graham’s claim was “an extraordinary charge”, and asked: “What further evidence is there that they want to privatise the entire NHS?”
“Well look, I was around when Jeremy Hunt was the health secretary and he wanted the NHS in the American trade deal.”
It’s worth noting that Hunt later said that the NHS would remain off-limits for any US companies if a UK-US trade deal was to go ahead.
Graham continued: “What we’re seeing now is such an act of self-harm, I cannot understand why the prime minister does not come to the table, why the general secretaries have said we will be there, any time any place any day he wants, come to the table and get this deal done.”
Following on from Barclay’s claims that there were “constructive” discussions going on behind the scenes, Graham said: “There are no pay talks Justin, that is the reality. It is wrong to suggest that they are.”
She continued: “The government now ned to get this by the horns, Rishi Sunak needs to take responsibility, it’s clear that Stephen Barclay has no authority to do a deal, it’s absolutely clear, so let’s get the proper decision-makers in a room and let’s get this deal done.”