Ambulance crews in the North East are preparing to take industrial action over a controversial shake-up of the service.
Staff at the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (NEAS) voted in favour of taking action in a poll over the changes being made to the organisation in an A&E review.
The vote comes after the trust announced plans to change the way it operates, with a “non-emergency” tier of ambulance introduced to deal with calls not classed as 999 emergencies.
These vehicles, which would not be staffed by a paramedic, are aimed at dealing with many of the GP and hospital transfers.
It is expected that any industrial action by members would fall short of a strike but could see action such as a work to rule and overtime ban.
Health chiefs at public services union Unison, which includes 1,500 members at NEAS, said the changes were impacting negatively upon staff and patients.
Joel Byers, Unison branch secretary for the North East Ambulance Service, said: “The A&E review has been rejected by members and, in an indicative ballot, the majority said they would be prepared to take industrial action over the issue.
“At the moment, members can’t get their shifts finished on time and they’re doing 14-hour working days when they’re only contracted to do 11-hour shifts, so they’re being forced to do compulsory overtime.
“Members also can’t get their meal breaks on time and they have not had a pay rise in three years. Morale is at an all-time low.
“Before, everybody who rang 999 got an ambulance, but now, if the patient’s condition is not deemed as life-threatening, then they could be waiting hours for an ambulance.”
Mr Byers said employees were feeling “over-worked and stressed” and hundreds of staff had left NEAS, with many retiring early as they couldn’t cope with the increased workload.
Under Government cuts, the North East Ambulance Service was told it needed to save £20m in a five-year period.
“I don’t think we as an emergency service should have to make any cuts,” said Mr Byers.
Under the A&E review, plans were put in place to withdraw ambulances from Berwick and Haltwhistle, in Northumberland.
NEAS had proposed to axe a vehicle which serves Berwick 12 hours a day and to withdraw one from Haltwhistle as part of a review of cover across the region. But the proposals were abandoned after new funding was agreed to improve response times.
The North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust declined to comment about the Unison ballot, despite requests from The Journal.