Earlier this week, the GMB Scotland Union’s SAS members overwhelmingly voted for strike action, amidst a dispute with the Scottish Government over pay. A 5 per cent pay rise had been offered to all staff, with an improvement tabled to up the percentages for the lowest-paid employees.
The strikes, which could take place as the NHS struggles with record accident-and-emergency (A&E) waiting times and a looming influenza and coronavirus season, mean the Scottish Government may turn to the UK Government’s Ministry of Defence for army assistance.
A spokesperson for GMB Scotland said “there would be some semblance of life and limb cover" during the strike action, but regardless, the strike would have “profound consequences for service delivery”.
The British Army has provided ambulance services in the UK before, most notably in Scotland across the Covid pandemic, but also during the 1989-90 ambulance strikes, and the 1978-1979 ‘winter of discontent’.
During a visit to Bangholm Medical Centre in Edinburgh yesterday, Mr Yousaf said: “There is no way of sugar-coating it. If strikes do go ahead, then it would be catastrophic for the health service and for the people that we serve. But I will spend every waking moment doing my best to try to alleviate those strikes from happening.
“We’ve still to wait for the largest health union to come back in terms of the offer that’s been put to its membership and once we hear back from Unison, of course, we will decide what the next course of action will be.”
Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “While it’s welcome that we can call on the British Army in times of crisis, it is unacceptable that we’re even having to contemplate this last-resort measure for the second year in a row.
“Scotland’s A&E waiting times are already the highest on record, with ambulance turn-arounds and response times soaring as a result. Strike action will only make this winter even more catastrophic than last year.
“Patients must not be let down or put in danger as a result of industrial action, but the British Army should not be used as a crutch for Humza Yousaf’s failures. Staff are threatening to strike because the SNP’s woeful workforce planning has left them under unsustainable pressure and stress, and Humza Yousaf seems unwilling to find solutions.
“Scotland’s NHS is lurching from crisis to crisis – Humza Yousaf must get a grip of this situation and ensure our heroic ambulance staff get the support they deserve.”
Scottish Labour Health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: “Instead of scrambling about trying to manage these strikes, the SNP should be getting round the table to stop them. These strikes will cause chaos no matter who the SNP get help from, but blame for this mess lies squarely at the health secretary’s door.”
A SAS spokesperson said: “Our staff do an incredible job, often in very challenging circumstances. We would encourage continued engagement, so that a suitable resolution can be found.
“Meanwhile, discussions with our staff-side representatives continue, including possible contingency arrangements to ensure vital patient care is maintained."