Hundreds of troops are being trained to drive ambulances and firefight in the event of strike action, the government has said.
About 2,000 military personnel, civil servants and other volunteers from across government have been preparing as ministers brace for a wave of industrial action across the public sector. The Cabinet Office said they included up to 600 armed forces personnel and 700 staff from the Government’s specialist Surge and Rapid Response Team, as well as other parts of the Civil Service.
As well as covering for fire and ambulance crews, they could also be drafted in to ports and airports in the event of strike action by Border Force staff. Conservative Party chairman Nadim Zahawi said ministers were determined to minimise disruption from industrial action in the weeks ahead.
“It is the right and responsible thing to do to have contingency plans in place,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme. We have a very strong team at Cobra (civil contingencies committee) who are doing a lot of the work in looking at what we need to do to minimise the disruption to people’s lives.”
The Cabinet Office said no decisions have been taken yet on the deployment of troops, but they were part of the “range of options available” should the strikes go ahead as planned. “The priority over the coming weeks is to protect the public who may need access to emergency services support, and limit disruption as much as possible, particularly at a time when increased numbers of people will be travelling for the festive period and NHS services are under huge pressure due to the impact of Covid,” it said.
The measures come as a series of unions across public services are preparing to carry out strike action or ballot their members over pay as they seek to alleviate the squeeze on living standards from soaring inflation. As well as ambulance staff, nurses in the NHS are due to hold two days of strikes this month while junior doctors are also set to be balloted on industrial action.
There is expected to be widespread disruption to transport in the run up to Christmas with further rails strikes, walk-outs by baggage handlers at Heathrow and possible action by Border Force staff. The Fire Brigades Union meanwhile is balloting its members while industrial action is continuing at the Royal Mail.
Mr Zahawi said that while he was “absolutely conscious” of how difficult it was for many workers, the country simply could not afford inflation or above-inflation pay awards. He said rising prices were being driven by higher energy costs due to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, as he appealed to unions to drop their demands.
“This is not a time to be divided. We have to come together to, I hope, send a very clear message to Mr Putin that he can’t use energy as a weapon in this way,” he said. “If you chase inflation or above-inflation pay then you will embed inflation for longer and hurt the most vulnerable. This is not a time to strike, this is a time to negotiate.
“To ask for a 19% pay rise (for nurses) which would cost the NHS £10 billion I think is the wrong thing to do right now. If you accept all the inflation-level pay rises, that is about £28 billion. It would cost every household just short of £1,000. That is unsustainable when we are trying to be fiscally disciplined.”
Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen angrily dismissed Mr Zahawi’s attempt to link their action to the conflict in Ukraine. “Using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK is a new low for this Government. The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute,” she said.
“Nursing staff cannot afford their food and other bills and still fear the worst on energy this winter. Record numbers of nurses are leaving because they feel undervalued and patients are paying the price. Ten days until our strike action is due to begin, I reiterate my commitment to meeting with ministers to address our dispute.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:”Nadhim Zahawi’s allegation that Britain’s nurses, ambulance drivers and teachers are allies of Vladimir Putin is as ridiculous as it is disgraceful. Rather than running down our NHS in an act of catastrophic self-harm and threatening to bring in the military, the minister should instead ask himself why health staff are leaving in droves.
“The truth is, if pay and conditions are not dramatically improved, no army will be big enough to cover the vacancies, never mind strikes.”