999 Staff Meal Breaks Axed

Lives will be at risk when ambulance crews’ paid meal breaks are axed next month, unions have warned. In another blow to Wales’ crisis-hit ambulance service, some 1,700 paramedics and control room staff could refuse to respond to calls during break times in protest at the shake-up beginning on March 1.

At the moment, paramedics are paid for daily meal breaks but respond to 999 calls if they come in during lunch or tea time.

Staff who work an eight-hour shift are entitled to a 30-minute paid break. Those who work 10 and 12-hour shifts have a half-hour meal break plus a 20-minute tea break.

But from St David’s Day, the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust will axe the paid breaks.

WoS understands the Trust initially wanted to impose the changes last April but the move was resisted when staff voted overwhelmingly against the idea.

Trust chief executive Alan Murray has now written to staff, telling them of the March 1 changes but has urged them to respond to calls if they come in during meal times.

The Trust is offering staff £5 “availability allowances” if they agree to pick up the phone to 999 calls during meal times and a £20 “disturbance fee” to paramedics if they are forced to go out on the road.

One insider said there is no evidence that the ‘ad hoc’ fees will improve patient care

But on Friday, Trust chiefs said the meal break change would be time-tabled and carefully planned to ensure 999 calls are dealt with effectively.

However, the issue worries union leaders who fear 999 workers will be able to pick and choose which incidents to respond to.

A union insider said: “Paramedics in Wales and Ireland are currently the only ambulance workers in Britain who get paid for their lunch breaks. The Trust wants to bring in this change to put Welsh paramedics on a par with those in England. But making this change now, given the state of the Welsh ambulance service, could be disastrous.

“This is devastating for staff who realise and fear that lives will be put at risk. The risk to patients is enormous.”

News of the change comes just days after the Trust urged people in South Wales to dial 999 only in an extreme emergency. The Trust issued the warning on Sunday following last weekend’s snow and bad weather conditions. Then on Monday, the chaos continued following the death of a patient who needed eight 999 calls to get him to hospital. The unnamed elderly patient is understood to have died before he arrived at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff.

Union leaders also fear the meal break plan could lead to deaths, like those in other parts of the UK where paramedics have been slow to attend 999 calls due to their lunch break.

Last month, 13-year-old Ben Stirland from Newcastle died after choking on a pen-top after an ambulance had to drive 10 miles to reach him. The nearest crew were on a meal break, unaware of the emergency.

And two paramedics in North Yorkshire were sacked last month because they did not respond to a 999 call while on a meal break.

The union insider added: “We fear incidents like these will occur in Wales once paid meal breaks are scrapped. Following this week’s meltdown, the Trust came out and told everyone how a new fleet of 119 ambulances will be taking to the roads as part of an overhaul of the 999 transport system.

“It’s all very good, but at the end of the day they’re just machines, a tool to do the job. If paramedics won’t drive them during their lunch, then how can they possibly save lives?”

A Trust spokesperson urged the public not to panic.

She said: “This change is being brought about by the national Agenda for Change policy for NHS staff. It ensures 999 workers get uninterrupted meal breaks. It’s true that this will come into effect for our workers on March 1.

“However, the changes to the meal breaks will be built into staff rosters ensuring that ambulance cover is available.