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‘Don’t use me as an excuse’: Paramedics slam anti-protest bill

The Tories justify the Public Order Bill by saying protests ‘block emergency services’. Ambulance workers don’t agree

Anita Mureithi
26 January 2023, 1.11pm

Ambulance workers have rubbished the Tories’ claim that controversial new anti-protest laws are necessitated by the impact of blocked roads on emergency services.

Thousands of Unison ambulance staff walked out on Monday, just weeks after Rishi Sunak’s government announced plans for separate anti-strike laws that could force people back to work to provide so-called “minimum service levels”.

For Glenn Austin, who has worked as a paramedic for 20 years, anti-strike laws and anti-protest laws are “anti-democratic”.

“Our government represents what we want,” he told openDemocracy. “So if we’re not allowed to say what we want, then how are we supposed to express ourselves apart from shouting at the TV? Unions are our voice. Protest is our voice.”

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On a picket line in Waterloo, paramedic Richard Kingham said emergency services being used to justify anti-protest measures was “absolutely disgusting”.

Kingham, out striking for fair pay and job security for future ambulance workers, sees clampdowns on strikes and protests as related.

​[The government] wants to shut us up. They want to lie to the public

“Just like anti-strike laws, it’s very dangerous,” he said. “​[The government] wants to shut us up. They want to lie to the public. Public support is such at the minute where you’ve heard people toot [every few minutes] as they go down the road.”

Last month, a YouGov poll found that striking nurses and ambulance workers have the most support from the British public, with over half either ‘strongly supporting’ or ‘somewhat supporting’ ambulance staff.

Anti-protest legislation has garnered outrage from human rights groups. The Public Order Bill now making its way through Parliament consists partly of offcuts from last year’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which gave police and the courts more power to arrest and punish protesters.

Key parts of the legislation were defeated in the House of Lords, but resurfaced in the later bill, while an amendment announced earlier this month would give police the power to shut down protests even before disruption actually began. Both laws were designed to restrict the work of activist groups such as Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter.

Announcing the amendment, the Conservative Party claimed: “Protests that block life-saving emergency services and cause commuter chaos must stop. Today, we’re amending the Public Order Bill to expand police ability to deal with disruptive strikes.”

But Austin told openDemocracy: “I have supported many demonstrations… There are people making points that need to be made and they have a right to make those points.

“I don’t like the fact that we’ve been used as an excuse not to block roads, or not to make whatever protests you're going to make. That’s not an emergency service issue. We’ll find a way through and… most of the time, in my experience, we’ve been allowed through when we’ve needed to get through.

“People have made space for us, or we’ve found another way around because we’re not stupid. So no… do not put my name on that. Don’t use me as an excuse.”

Targeting ambulance workers

The government and right-wing media have repeatedly accused protesters in roads of slowing emergency services. In October last year, it was reported that Just Stop Oil activists had blocked paramedics responding to a fatal crash. openDemocracy later revealed that this claim was false.

Lucia Francis-Wint and Dan Nunnery, both paramedics, accused the government of only caring about ambulance workers when it wanted to target protesters. Paramedics and other members of the GMB union wrote to the prime minister earlier this month accusing his government of “targeting ambulance workers for a deliberate attack” in order to justify new anti-strike laws.

“It’s convenient for [the government] to use us when they need us,” said Francis-Wint and Nunnery, “but then when it’s actually [time] to help us out they’re trying to stop us.”

Ambulance workers have described feeling backed into a corner as a result of not being listened to by the government.

If we stand united… then we’ve got the power. There’s more of us than there are of them

Steve Yates, another London paramedic striking for a better wage, said: “They do not want to hear what we’ve got to say.

“I believe that they're burying their heads in the sand. [The need for fairer pay] is a reality that I believe they know exists, but are turning their back on it. They don’t want to acknowledge it. They know that it’s there but they don’t want to engage.”For many like Yates, the rights to strike and protest are not only linked, but are fundamental amid a cost-of-living crisis, an NHS crisis, and a climate crisis.

“I like to think that we live in a democracy,” he said. “And if people don’t have the right to be heard, it can potentially result in other measures being taken to have their voices heard…

I want peaceful protests. I wouldn’t advocate for anything else. But I think what the government needs to be mindful of is that if they begin to curb protests and strike action, [making] them illegal. It could potentially be a slippery slope that leads to other things.”

Yates expressed solidarity with protesters, adding that the government’s crackdown on dissent is about “divide and conquer”.

“As long as factions are not on each other’s sides, then it’s easier for them to manipulate and control,” he said. “Whereas if we stand united, whatever it may be, then we’ve got the power. There’s more of us than there are of them.”

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