Ambulance staff hours cut in meal break row

Ambulance staff in Scotland will have their working week cut to resolve a long-running dispute over meal breaks, the government has announced.

The deal also means workers will have to attend emergency calls whenever they come up during their shifts.

Staff currently work a 40-hour week, including two-and-a-half hours of unpaid break time.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said ambulance workers will move to a 37.5-hour working week, including rest time.

The dispute flared up following the death of Mandy Mathieson, from Tomintoul, in Moray, after an ambulance technician stationed close to her home did not respond to a call as he was on a break.

The deal between the Scottish government and the Unite, Unison and GMB unions was struck after previous offers to resolve the issue - based around extra payments to ambulance staff whose breaks were disrupted - were turned down.

Ms Sturgeon told parliament the solution would protect patient safety and support Scottish Ambulance Service workers.

And she said an extra 150 front line staff would be hired to maintain the service.

As an interim measure, staff will be paid an extra £150 per month and will have to answer calls during breaks until the new working week comes into force.

The health secretary said: "The agreement ensures that additional funding will be invested in the ambulance service, rather than in additional payments to existing ambulance staff.

"No individual staff member will gain financially when required to attend an emergency call during a rest period.

"I welcome a resolution that clearly demonstrates what I have always known and believed to be the case - that the priority of ambulance staff is their patients, not their personal gain."

Ms Mathieson died in October 2010.

An ambulance crew based 21 minutes away in Grantown-on-Spey responded to the call because the local ambulance technician was on a meal break.

Ms Mathieson's relatives were shown a transcript of the call to her village ambulance station, which confirmed that while the ambulance technician knew about the incident, he was not formally asked to attend.

Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of the Unite union, said: "Our members in the Scottish ambulance service have worked long and hard to ensure a satisfactory conclusion to this sensitive issue.

"Today's developments are a step in the right direction and a reflection of their total dedication to this essential public service."

Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said she had received reports from paramedics that patient safety had been compromised during temporary arrangements put in place during the dispute.

And Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur asked how the review would affect island areas such as his own constituency of Orkney.

Ms Sturgeon said she was satisfied the previous arrangements had been used appropriately.

She also said the new ambulance service jobs would come with extra investment of £5m a year to improve performance and increase the number of community paramedics in remote areas.

Tory health spokesman Jackson Carlaw, said: "One aspect of the meal break remuneration had been questions in the public mind about priorities.

"Now, these are no longer in doubt and high profile cases like Tomintoul ought to remain firmly in the past, so I welcome the deal."

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