The combination of strike action and a predicted increase of the usual seasonal pressures on NHS services has left health services feeling the heat.
The GMB union has announced a summer of strikes - with paramedics staging a walk-out every Saturday from now until October.
Although the GMB does not have many members in Lancashire, Unite union are also in dispute with North West Ambulance Service and have balloted their members for possible strike action.
Bosses at NWAS have admitted that the walk-outs are “highly likely” to cause delays in ambulance response times.
At the same time the British Medical Association have released predictions showing that the high levels of pressure seen on NHS services will continue into the summer.
A forecast based on official data from the past five years shows that in a best-case scenario, levels of pressure on the health service look set to match the 2015/16 winter.
In a worst-case scenario, A&E attendances, waiting times and admissions could continue at a level similar to the 2016/17 winter - which brought a warning at the time from the British Red Cross that the NHS was facing a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
Paramedics to stage another one-day strike
Paramedics in Lancashire will be staging a fourth one-day strike on Saturday – the start of a three-month long industrial dispute.
Members of the GMB union who work for North West Ambulance Service will be walking out on the Saturday day shift. This will be repeated every Saturday until October.
The union is locked in a bitter dispute with the Trust over pay banding issues that go back 13 years – to when ambulance services in the region merged to form NWAS.
The majority of NWAS paramedics are not members of the GMB union and so far the walk-outs have caused little disruption.
Lisa Ward, interim director of Organisational Development for NWAS, said: “The trust is extremely disappointed with this fourth day of action and is frustrated with the reluctance of GMB to discuss any movement from their current position. This is despite the positive discussions which have enabled us to reach an agreement on this matter with our other partner trade unions UNISON and Unite, who represent the majority of our staff. We have now also received formal notification that this action will occur every weekend from July 21 until October.
“I am in no doubt that their actions will affect patients although we will be doing all we can to minimise any impact on the public. It is fair to say that the action so far has had little impact on our ability to respond to patients, however, this extended period of action is highly likely to cause some delays, particularly to the less urgent calls. We have robust plans to ensure as much cover as possible throughout the region but we urge the public to help us by only calling 999 for life-threatening or potentially life-threatening emergencies.
“For non-emergency health concerns, alternative care and advice can be found though local pharmacies, GP surgeries, walk-in centres or NHS111.”
Mike Buoey, GMB organiser, said: “Our members are desperate to get this situation resolved – they’ve been waiting a long time for their job to be re-evaluated for the years between 2005 to 2016.
“The last thing we want is ongoing industrial action, yet NWAS seem determined to let the situation continue.”
After almost 13 years, our members are now saying enough is enough.”
Traditionally, winter has seen a spike in demand for NHS services – particularly A&E – while demand tails off in the summer.
Extra pressures such as winter flu mean that long waits in A&E, and waits for admission beds, are highest in summer, but tend to be less severe in winter.
However this year the BMA is predicting that demand will not fall, and will remain as high as it was over the winter. This could lead to people waiting for more than four hours to be seen in A&E, and waiting on trolleys for beds to become available. GP services are also likely to be stretched, with patiens fidnign it harder to get an appointment.
One NHS trust - the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust - has already announced that it is planning to keep its extra winter capacity open until the summer.
National BMA chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “This data clearly shows what doctors working on the front line have been saying for some time – that the “winter crisis” has truly been replaced by a year-round crisis.
“Doctors and patients have just endured one of the worst winters on record, resulting in thousands of cancelled operations, unacceptable long waits to be seen and people who are already at their most vulnerable having to face the indignity of being treated in hospital corridors.
“These scenes have become an all-too-familiar annual occurrence, each year stretching further into spring and appearing again earlier the next winter. We cannot accept that this is the new normal for the NHS.”
Karen Partington, chief executive at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is widely appreciated that demand for NHS services has increased continuously.
“Last winter was an unprecedented time of pressure for the NHS.
“With many of us living longer, more and more people are developing complex or long-term conditions which require NHS services. That means we are increasingly looking after more acutely unwell patients in our hospitals all year round. Our staff continue to work with great commitment and compassion to care for the increasing number of patients who need hospital care.”
But we must now consider how we organise services so that our staff can continue to provide safe, effective and timely care patients. That’s why we are working with our partners on the ‘Our Health Our Care’ programme to consider, with the public’s input, how services in Central Lancashire should be provided in the future to address these challenges.”