Leader: Rejection of tea break pay offer a mockery of emergency services

FIFTEEN months after the tragic death of Mandy Mathieson after a local ambulance station failed to respond to an emergency call and the wrangle over interrupted tea breaks lumbers on.

It is one of these disputes in which many will feel the need to read the story twice because they found it hard to believe the first time. Ambulance drivers have been in dispute over compensation payments to handle emergency calls should they come in during a rest break. Several offers were made in an attempt to settle the dispute. All have been rejected. Last month the ambulance service management made a substantially improved offer, backed by the Scottish Government, in order to break the deadlock.

This would have handed ambulance staff a lump sum payment of £1,500 and in addition a payment of £100 each time their rest break was interrupted by an emergency call from the public. It was described by the Scotland Patients Association at the time as “obscene”. Now this offer, too, has been rejected. According to the public sector trade union Unite, some 62 per cent of the ballot papers returned rejected the settlement proposal.

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The rejection of the offer as much as the offer itself and the circumstances that sparked the dispute in the first place, is likely to prove highly controversial. The row came to the fore after Mandy Mathieson, of Tomintoul, died after placing a call to the local ambulance station. The technician stationed close to her home did not respond to the call as he was on a break. Instead, an ambulance crew based 21 minutes away in Grantown-on-Spey responded. The case has aroused considerable public concern over the reliability of responses to emergency calls and the risks posed to distressed members of the public who phone in good faith expecting assistance.

From the outset, this dispute has played into the rapacity of ambulance staff. The repeated rejection of previous offers has certainly paid off in an offer that many members of the public would find objectionable. Now that this offer has been rejected, the offer of yet more money from an already tightly stretched NHS budget would not only be deeply offensive but would also encourage others in the NHS to follow suit. Ambulance staff say the dispute is not about money but about levels of staff cover. But if that is so, why has any money been offered at all, unless management was under the impression that this was what the crews were after? It would then have been a dispute over ways to achieve more flexibility in staffing rotas.

The idea of insisting on uninterrupted tea breaks while people’s lives are at stake makes a mockery of the service ethos that lies at the heart of emergency services. Further talks are to be held next week. It would be reassuring to the public that a settlement is reached soon. At the same time any settlement has to have regard for the sacrifices thousands of other NHS staff are making at a most difficult time for budgets everywhere.