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High Stakes in Play in Britain’s Ambulance Strike

January 19, 1990 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ The army ambulances screaming through London traffic look like a throwback to World War II, but they symbolize a modern-day battle between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the nation’s ambulance drivers.

Army and police ambulances have been thrown into the fray while the government and the drivers vie for public opinion in a pay dispute that is nearly 5 months old and ranks among the classic confrontations with organized labor that have marked Mrs. Thatcher’s decade in power.

Routine services have ceased almost throughout the country, forcing state health authorities to hire taxis and relatives to use their own cars to bring non-emergency cases to hospitals.

Emergency calls are diverted to the police, army or Red Cross. Meanwhile, some crews suspended for joining the dispute are operating an unofficial service. They accept emergency calls direct from hospitals or members of the public, but not from the ambulance control rooms, which are their management.

Each side accuses the other of being callous and risking lives in the increasingly bizarre and acrimonious dispute. There are no official figures on strike-related deaths, but doctors in Birmingham, central England, say they know of three patients who died because help arrived too late.

The protests began Sept. 7 when Britain’s 22,500 ambulance drivers started refusing to work overtime.

In October, emergency crews stopped using their radios or, in many cases, answering calls routed through control rooms.

Their employer, the state-funded National Health Service, responded by suspending the drivers without pay.

With the crisis deepening, the Conservative Party government ordered in police and army ambulances on Nov. 8. It was the first time they had been used for civilian ambulance work since 1978-79, when public service strikes hit a Labor Party government.

As frustration mounts, crews at half a dozen stations in London and south England recently defied union orders and voted to strike. Union leaders fear this will alienate the public.

The public, which in the past has backed Mrs. Thatcher against the once- powerful unions, has so far supported the ambulance crews. They have become national heroes during an 18-month string of national disasters, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

The latest Gallup opinion poll says they are backed by 85 percent of Britons.

Four million people signed a petition of support, and 30,000 turned out to cheer the crews as they marched through central London.

Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke, the government’s front-line fighter in the dispute, rejects the crews’ claim to be treated like police and firefighters, arguing that only 10 percent of ambulance work involves real emergencies.

But he has blundered in his choice of words - saying most ambulance crews run a ″taxi service for old ladies,″ and that they are little more than ″professional drivers, a worthwhile job but not an exceptional one.″

Such imagery goes down poorly with a public that is used to seeing ambulance crews cutting survivors out of train wrecks or wading into burning subway stations.

″We are sick to death of this government ... attending every disaster that occurs, saying how wonderful the emergency services are and then refusing to pay them a decent wage,″ says Labor lawmaker Dawn Primarolo.

Ambulance crews, who earn $16,630 a year, want 11.4 percent more, plus the automatic inflation-linked raises given to firefighters and policemen.

The government has offered 6.5 percent, and bonuses for staff who have paramedical skills. The drivers reject that as ″elitist and divisive.″

The confrontation encapsulates the problems Mrs. Thatcher faces amid signs that Britain is slipping back into old habits of pricing itself out of the market with inflation-fueling wage hikes.

Latest figures show production costs in Britain rising three times faster than in the United States and more than six times faster than in Japan.

The ambulance crews’ demands could be met for a paltry $16 million. But inflation is near 8 percent, and the government fears a surrender would encourage demands for double-digit raises by the rest of the one million staff in the health service, Europe’s biggest employer.

″To the government it doesn’t matter who dies, they are just hellbent on defeating us,″ said Chris Cosham, a 28-year-old suspended ambulanceman. ″It looks very desperate for us now. But we’ll give them a bloody fight.″