A furious row has broken out between unions and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) after a Major Incident was declared, forcing paramedics to work during yesterday's strike.
Unions branded the move "cynical", "provocative" and "pulling a stunt", and that it's brought industrial relations to breaking point.
Hours before strike action was due to begin paramedics received a text message saying they had to report for duty. Unison said there was "deep anger and frustration" that the move forced it to call off striking, adding that it will lead to further industrial action,
On Friday afternoon the NIAS canvassed staff on duty to see if they would remain to respond to Category A and B calls if the major incident was stood down.
NIAS said around 10% of 41 ambulance crews were willing to remain on duty to answer life-threatening and serious calls.
NIAS and unions had come to an agreement for life-threatening 999 calls to be answered during the strike. But the service said it was then "inundated" with calls around two hours before industrial action, saying high levels of staff would be striking.
An estimated 60% of accident and emergency crews and 80% of rapid response paramedics had planned to strike.
NIAS figures showed that between midnight and 8am yesterday it received 78 999 calls - with 37 Category A where there is an immediate threat to life. The service said it had no option but to call a Major Incident in order "to maintain a safe level of cover".
NIAS spokesman John McPoland said there were no reserves and that patient safety was uppermost.
He added that at midnight seven crews were available for all emergencies across Northern Ireland instead of the standard 47.
He said: "We would be left with a situation... where rather than having to explain a Major Incident, I could have been in here trying to explain to some family why a child who was choking in Newtownabbey, a three-month-old child, had perhaps died."
Unison accused NIAS of inadequate forward planning. In a statement it said: "There is deep anger and frustration across the ambulance service with the decision to install a Major Incident status two hours before strike action was due to commence. "
Patricia McKeown of Unison also questioned why the Major Incident was called just before strike action, adding that if absence of resources was the issue then many Major Incidents should have been triggered since January.
Unite's Kevin McAdam added: "There was no Major Incident, rather an inability and unwillingness for management to effectively manage the strike.
"We are unhappy and disgusted by the NIAS cynically exploiting this part of the emergency cover understanding to thwart the industrial action."