Voices: The government’s anti-strike laws announce its own staggering failure

“We must ensure the safety of the British public.” These were the words Grant Shapps used as he stood at the despatch box of the House of Commons, introducing legislation to limit the right to strike for doctors, nurses, firefighters and various others.

We must ensure the safety of the British public. That is widely understood to be the first – and to a certain extent the only – job of government. If a government can’t ensure the safety of the people, then it will cease to be a government at the next available opportunity.

And so we turn, at this point, to figures published today by the Office for National Statistics. In the week that ended on 30 December 2022, 9,517 deaths were registered in England and Wales. That is fully 20 per cent above the five-year average. One thousand, six hundred excess deaths that cannot easily be explained.

Death is really one of the key indices on which you can measure how your government is getting on in its key job of ensuring the safety of the public. Dying is, after all, one of the most unsafe things you can do. Or calling 999 because you’ve got chest pains, only to be told you’re better off driving yourself to hospital, and then crashing the car in the hospital car park because you’ve gone into cardiac arrest: that’s the kind of thing that really puts bungee jumping in New Zealand in the shade. Yet that’s exactly what happened earlier this week, in this, still one of the richest countries in the world.

At least, that’s according to a stressed and depressed ambulance dispatcher who spoke anonymously to the BBC. He, like others, is on the verge of leaving his job because he can’t cope with the misery of it. Of taking calls from people in desperate need of emergency assistance but telling them they’ll have to wait because all of his ambulances are queued up outside hospitals, and paramedics are coming and going from them, swapping in and out of 12-hour shifts, just waiting – waiting – for the patient lying in the ambulance to be taken into the hospital.

That has been the life of paramedics every day for months. Well, not quite every day, possibly. Because for two days this winter, a limited number of ambulance trusts have gone on limited strikes, and some of them have further action planned for later this month.

And so, in wanders Shapps, to announce: “We must ensure the safety of the British public.’” Announcing, in those words, his government’s staggering failure.

Anyone who pays even passing attention to the news has not gone more than two minutes, seemingly for months, without hearing yet another NHS horror story. Of cardiac patients sitting around in A&E for days on end. Of elderly patients trapped on wards, struggling with illnesses they didn’t have when they arrived. Labour’s Angela Rayner didn’t find it especially difficult to tell Shapps of a constituent of hers who had died waiting for an ambulance; they had not died waiting because the ambulance drivers were striking, but because the ambulance personnel were sitting around wasting their time outside hospitals – wasting other people’s lives, quite literally.

Shapps argued that this legislation is necessary to bring about a “minimum standard of safety”. That it is necessary to bring this country “in line with France, with Germany and Italy”.

So why has it not been done before? If the lack of anti-strike legislation for nurses and firefighters and ambulance drivers is leaving everyone in such grave peril, why would we only get round to introducing it now? Mrs Thatcher wasn’t exactly known for making life easy for strikers, but she didn’t take this apparently crucial action to “ensure the safety of the British public” either. And why not?

The simple answer is because we’ve never needed to. The Royal College of Nursing has never gone on strike before. The last time ambulance workers went on any kind of strike was 30 years ago. Why? Because they actually care about ensuring the safety of the British public. It’s not something they just say they do. They get up every morning and do it.

And half the reason they’re on strike is because the situation has become so hopeless that they find themselves unable to do it.

The trouble the government faces, and will continue to face, is that the British public have worked out precisely who it is that’s not ensuring their safety. And they will be taking appropriate action at the ballot box.