Ministers prepare to send in army as Christmas strike misery looms

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Ministers will this week finalise plans to send in the army to drive ambulances and staff borders at airports, as a wave of public sector strikes threatens to bring massive Christmas disruption to Britain.

Health secretary Steve Barclay has so far rejected calls by health union leaders to hold face-to-face pay negotiations to head off a strike by nurses this week, which could bring further misery to the country’s hospitals.

Downing Street said that all ministers were committed to keeping public sector pay under control. “We have to consider what’s fair and what’s sensible in terms of not stoking inflation further,” Number 10 said.

Oliver Dowden, cabinet office minister, will finalise contingency planning this week for a wave of strikes, anticipating widespread disruption in public services including hospitals, railways and airports in the run-up to Christmas and beyond.

The Cobra emergency committee will look at the use of military personnel and civil servants at Border Force checkpoints at airports; they are being trained to take over the checks when staff walk out from December 23.

Armed forces personnel are also being sent to hospital trusts across the country to familiarise themselves with vehicles ahead of ambulance strikes planned for next week.

Meanwhile, ministers are working with Network Rail to ensure that key freight movements continue during planned industrial action that will affect rail services for almost a month either side of the Christmas period, with coal, steel and waste being prioritised.

“We urge union bosses to call off these damaging strikes and to keep talking,” Dowden said.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, believes that demands by nursing unions for a 19 per cent pay rise — 5 percentage points above the rate of retail price inflation — would “just entrench inflation” according to allies.

On Sunday, Pat Cullen, head of the Royal College of Nursing, suggested that she could reconsider that pay demand and would suspend strike action — due to start on December 15 — if Barclay agreed to negotiate a pay deal.

Strike action by nurses is due to start on December 15
Strike action by nurses is due to start on December 15 © Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/Getty Images

A pay offer to health workers by the Scottish government of between 5 and 11 per cent, depending on grades, is seen as a possible template for a deal in England. Unison has recommended that its members north of the border accept the offer.

Barclay has said he is willing to talk to the unions, but so far he has engaged mainly in discussions about working conditions and not on the issue of pay.

Cullen indicated a potential willingness to give ground on the union’s central demand for a pay rise totalling more than 19 per cent, if Barclay sat down for pay talks or engaged through the conciliation service Acas.

“I certainly will not be found wanting in my negotiation,” she told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. “I won’t dig in if he doesn’t dig in.” 

James Cleverly, foreign secretary, said in a series of media interviews that the government held the view that pay should be set by independent pay review bodies — whose recommendations had been accepted.

“Ultimately, salary negotiations are done between union leaders on behalf of their members and their employer,” he said. “And in this instance, the nurses’ employer is the NHS.”

Wes Streeting, shadow health spokesman, admitted that a Labour government could not afford the 19 per cent pay rise demanded by nurses but criticised Barclay for refusing to sit down to negotiate a deal.

Meanwhile, thousands of Environment Agency workers in England will stop attending incidents such as floods, water pollution, spills, waste fires and fly-tipping in December and over Christmas, as they begin “work to rule” industrial action from Monday, Unison said.

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