The Myth of the Blocked Ambulance
Jet McDonald explores how a belief that environmental protesters are blocking ambulances is used to justify anti-protest legislation and divert us from the climate emergency
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Last October, when Insulate Britain protesters blocked the roads, footage emerged of a man being dragged out of the way by a paramedic. It led to the trope that environmental activists – the so-called ‘eco mob’ – were stopping ambulances from bringing ill patients to hospital.
But this trope is a myth.
A Freedom of Information request answered by London Ambulance Service stated that during the October 2021 protests, “there were no reports of any incidents noted under the category ‘Transport delays’…and there were also no delays noted with the Duty Incident Delivery Manager”. The reality is that ambulances are always diverted based on contingent road conditions, and if they do have to pass through a blockade there is abundant footage of protestors making way for them to do so.
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Now, the erroneous argument that protesters are preventing emergency services from doing their job, is being used to justify draconian measures in the Public Order Bill. This legislation seeks to introduce sentencing terms for environmental protestors higher than those for significant assault, as well as the introduction of electronic tagging for people who haven’t even been charged with a crime.
“I will not bend to protestors attempting to hold the British public to ransom,” said (recently reinstalled) Home Secretary Suella Braverman. “Preventing our emergency services from reaching those who desperately need them is indefensible, hideously selfish and in no way in the public interest”.
It is not just the Conservatives. Labour leader Keir Starmer, who was the former Director of Public Prosecutions, recently spoke on LBC radio about the issue, saying “what we were pushing for in [the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill] was longer sentences for those who were glueing themselves to roads and motorways because that’s where you are putting lives at risk. We didn’t get that through, but that’s what I wanted”.
The Real Blocks on Emergency Services
One wonders if former Home Secretaries Priti Patel – responsible for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and her successor Suella Braverman have visited an Accident and Emergency Department recently.
If they had, they would likely find ambulances backed up outside, unable to take blue light calls, sometimes for the entirety of their shift, as they wait to hand over patients who cannot be admitted into trolleys and beds, because the NHS is overwhelmed. It’s not protesters blocking ambulances from bringing patients into hospitals. Ambulances are blocked from entering hospitals because the NHS is struggling to cope.
When my father, towards the end of his life, fell over on the pavement outside his house and blacked out this summer, I was told there was a three to four-hour wait for 999 calls. He regained consciousness and, with some difficulty, I got him into my parent’s car and drove to our local A & E department. We later discovered he’d had a heart attack.
This is the reality of the blocked ambulance.
Life and Death
The blocked ambulance has become a political weapon and a place for politicians to hide.
But we can perhaps reimagine this mythical ambulance as a devastating idea racing towards us: bringing the environmental collapse that politicians want to essentially block from the public’s consciousness.
Ambulances come from battlefields, carrying both the wounded and the dead. Up until the 1950s, many ambulances were being built on the same chassis as the hearse. In smaller towns and cities in America, the local funeral director was responsible for both. More often than not they were the same car with interchangeable parts, a ‘gurney’ that could be slotted in, en route, for most terminal cases. The erstwhile star of the film Ghostbusters, is a 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Sentinel, a combination hearse and ambulance, built on the same chassis. The ambulance has always meant the possibility of life and death.
In Death and Afterlife, the philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that a “collective afterlife” – the idea that humanity survives long after we are gone – is more important to us than many of our present values. Without this security in the future, our lives cease to make the kind of sense we need right now.
The climate crisis begs the question: who is coming to rescue us from the future? Where is the siren echoing from? Certainly not from our current leaders. Could it be that the road protestors are not blocking the ambulance getting to the hospital, rather they are diverting our attention to a future we are not yet philosophically equipped to deal with? A patient on the brink of death, a shared humanity on the brink of collapse.
It’s a chilling thought. But it at least allows for ambiguity, a subtlety that is so desperately needed as legislation is being passed designed to lock up 80-year-old pensioners and 18-year-old school leavers, doctors, nurses and paramedics taking action about the environmental crisis. Who here, really, is blocking who?