NHS nurses and ambulance workers stood side-by-side on picket lines on Monday - and together urged the Prime Minister to once again "get around the table" and bring the ongoing NHS pay row to an end.
For the first time during the winter of NHS strikes so far, two services took action on the same day. And though both ambulance workers and nurses had picket lines around the region - in Gateshead they were just yards from one another and each group spent time backing their NHS colleagues.
The mood on both picket lines - and across the Tyne in Newcastle - was a stubborn one, with NHS workers shocked by what they see as the Government's intransigence. Striking workers yet again told ChronicleLive how they'd much prefer to be in work, doing their jobs and saving lives.
Read more: Newcastle's chief nurse joins call for 'swift resolution' to pay dispute to protect 'patients, nurses and the profession'
On the picket line outside of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, nurse Lindsey Lang said: "We don't want to be here, let's be honest. We would much rather be at work looking after patients. But we just have to take this stand.
"It's getting to a point where it's unsafe - unsafe for patients and unsafe for staff."
And her colleague Amy Harkness added: "I feel like everyone's just a bit deflated. We didn't expect to be here. We didn't expect the Government to continue to let us down. They have brought nothing to the table."
Standing further down the picket line, Jennifer McAfferty continued: "I have never seen such unsafe staffing levels on the wards and in departments, and I have never known so many leaving the profession because they can't do their job properly. We currently have around 50,000 nursing vacancies, which would fill St James' Park. That's what we're losing.
And fellow nurse Michelle Newton added: "We are now striking for the third time to get the public onside, so they understand the NHS is dying on its feet. The nurses aren't able to cope anymore. We need your support."
Around the corner at the GMB picket line at Gateshead's ambulance station, Andrew Blunt, the union's regional organiser said the unions were "waiting for the government to get back around the table". He added: "They are refusing to talk about pay. But this is not just about pay it's about the decimation of the NHS over the years. 13 years of this Tory Government and the NHS is broken - people have had enough.
"The nurses are around here supporting our members. And our members are around there supporting the RCN. The Government need to get serious, get back round the table, and end this dispute now."
One ambulance worker, Mick, said he had moved to the North East - and to work for North East Ambulance Service - because he couldn't afford to live where he was previously based in Essex on an ambulance worker's salary. He said: "I moved up to the North East last March because I couldn't afford to live any more. I got to a point where I just couldn't afford it.
"My rent was twice what it is here - but now here the problem is that because of the price of fuel, of things like your gas and electric - it's difficult here too. The margin of difference is much smaller. No-one comes into this job for the money, you do it because you care about people. But we deserve a sense of being able to live."
The mood was also belligerent at a picket outside of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. There, newly-qualified community nurse Josh Gilroy explained that - with high student debt on top of everything else - it was an intensely difficult time to become a nurse.
He said that his team, working in the community providing sensitive services like end-of-life care - was under special pressure. He said a community nurse was now seeing around twice the number of patients a day - pushing 30 - compared to what would have been the norm in years gone by.
He said: "We would like to be positive. Hopefully we will get Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay around the table, because this is a Government choice - to neglect the NHS."
Prior to the strike action beginning, Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust chief nurse Maurya Cushlow was one of ten hospital chief nurses to sign a letter calling for a "swift resolution" to the industrial dispute. The letter highlighted the
This comes as the NHS Providers chief executive Sir Julian Hartley said they understood why so many of their staff had reached a “tipping point” as he urged ministers to sit down with unions to thrash out a settlement. He said 88,000 appointments had been already been cancelled as a result of the current industrial action, hitting patients hard.
“We’re facing a crunch point. Monday’s co-ordinated walkout by nurses and ambulance workers could see the worst disruption yet for the NHS,” he said.
In the House of Commons today, health minister Will Quince, responding to criticism from the Labour benches, said industrial action "is in nobody’s best interests".
He said the efforts made my striking workers were a "real tribute to the care and dedication" of front line NHS staff. He said: "But ultimately both they and the public should no longer be in this situation because we all know that industrial action is in nobody’s best interests, especially given the collective challenges we face to help the NHS recover from the pandemic.
“There is much common ground, not least our shared desire to improve the NHS and deliver better care. It is time to move forward and look ahead and come together in the interests of the patients that we all serve."
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