Rishi Sunak has created a dedicated unit to co-ordinate the UK government’s response to a threatened “winter of discontent”, as more than 10,000 ambulance workers became the latest public sector employees to vote for strike action.
The prime minister has put Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden in charge of preparing contingency plans to cope with a wave of walkouts, anticipating future ones and overseeing Whitehall’s approach.
The move comes as concerns mount in government over the threat posed by widespread industrial action, particularly in the public sector: James Callaghan’s Labour administration was fatally weakened by the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79.
The GMB union, which led the ballot of ambulance workers, said Wednesday’s announcement of walkouts at nine of 11 NHS trusts in England and Wales showed how “desperate” NHS workers contending with soaring inflation had become.
GMB national secretary Rachel Harrison said: “No one in the NHS takes strike action lightly. This is as much about unsafe staffing levels and patient safety as it is about pay.”
Its announcement follows the Royal College of Nursing’s confirmation on Friday that some of its members would walk out before the end of the year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The RCN, which has more than 300,000 members, won a mandate for action from 176 employers out of 311 where ballots occurred. As a result, 100,000 nursing staff will strike on December 15 and 20.
Unison, the largest public sector union, on Tuesday announced that 80,000 ambulance technicians, paramedics and 999 call handlers in England — one-fifth of the employees it represents — had voted for industrial action over pay and staffing in January.
The union failed to achieve the government’s threshold for action in five of England’s 10 ambulance trusts, meaning that only an estimated 15,000 workers will be able to go on strike. There are 49,231 ambulance staff in England and Wales, according to NHS Digital and the Welsh government.
The government has offered 1mn hospital nurses, paramedics, midwives and porters a pay rise of £1,400 — equivalent to 4 per cent on average and far below inflation of 10 per cent.
Health secretary Steve Barclay praised the dedication of NHS staff but said he deeply regretted the planned GMB industrial action ahead of what would already be a challenging winter.
“Our economic circumstances mean unions’ demands are not affordable — each additional 1 per cent pay rise for all staff on the Agenda for Change contract would cost around £700mn a year,” he said.
Barclay added that although the NHS had tried-and-tested plans to minimise disruption and ensure that emergency services continued, his “door remains open to discuss with the unions”.
One ally of Sunak said that while each industrial dispute was unique and required a “tailored response”, the new Whitehall unit’s aim was to look “across the board” at policy, including pay settlements.
Downing Street said solving disputes was “fundamentally a matter for employers and the unions” but that there were cases where “ministers feel it’s right to facilitate talks”.
A senior Tory government official pointed out that pay settlements were usually dictated by the recommendations of public sector pay bodies but refused to say whether ministers might be prepared to offer more in certain circumstances.
The prospect of disruption in the health service comes as talks over pay, working conditions and job security continue in the rail sector, where commuters have been hit with multiple strikes this year.
Despite recent tentative signs of progress in the long-running dispute between transport unions, train operating companies and the government, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has declined to call off four 48-hour stoppages in December and January.
Although the two sides are thought to be close to an agreement on pay, there remain issues around job security and conditions, according to people familiar with the talks.
The RMT on Monday and Tuesday announced two further walkouts for late December: by railway cleaners and Eurostar security staff.
Meanwhile, the TSSA union, which represents rail managers, said it would hold strikes on Avanti West Coast on December 13, 14, 16 and 17. It will also walk out at the franchise C2C, which runs services in Essex, on December 17.
Elsewhere, the education sector has been hit by widespread industrial action over pay and pensions, with staff at most English universities and all schools in Scotland striking on Thursday last week.