Strikes by NHS ambulance workers will cause ‘serious disruption’

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Downing Street admitted a strike by NHS ambulance workers in England and Wales next week will cause “serious disruption” even though 750 military personnel will be brought in to try to reduce the risks to the public.

Health secretary Steve Barclay has so far refused to discuss trade union demands for more pay for NHS workers, with pollsters warning that Rishi Sunak’s government could pay a heavy political price for the stand-off.

Pat Cullen, Royal College of Nursing general secretary, emerged from a meeting with Barclay on Monday, confirming that he had not been willing to talk about pay.

“I needed to come out of this meeting with something serious to show nurses why they should not strike this week. Regrettably, they are not getting an extra penny,” she said. She had expressed her “deep disappointment at the belligerence — they have closed their books and walked away,” Cullen added.

The Department of Health and Social Care said that Barclay had made clear “that any further pay increase would mean taking money away from frontline services and reducing the 7.2mn elective [treatment] backlog”. He would “continue to engage with the RCN as we move into the pay review process for next year and on non-pay related issues”, DHSC added.

An opinion poll last week found that nearly half of voters blamed the government for industrial action by nurses, scheduled for Thursday in England and Wales, and ambulance workers, starting on December 21.

Anthony Wells, head of political research at YouGov said: “The big weakness for the government is a sense that everything is broken. If anything goes wrong, it sticks to them — people assume it’s their fault.”

Rail unions are due to begin a series of new walkouts on Tuesday, amid a six-month dispute over pay and working practices. The RMT union said on Monday that its members had voted to reject a 9 per cent pay rise over two years from Network Rail, the infrastructure operator.

Meanwhile nurses, ambulance drivers, postal workers and Highways Agency staff have all voted to take industrial action this month.

Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister, convened a Cobra emergency meeting of ministers and officials on Monday to finalise contingency plans, including using the army to help run ambulances. Taxis will be block-booked to take non-emergency cases to hospital.

However, Downing Street admitted there were legal problems around the army driving ambulances — unlike NHS paramedics they are not permitted to run red lights or break speed limits.

Government officials said ambulance crews during the strikes would be a mix of military and NHS staff. In practice, NHS paramedics could drive an ambulance to a callout and then a member of the military could take control of it after the emergency had been dealt with.

“We aren’t suggesting there won’t be serious disruption caused by these strikes,” said Sunak’s spokesman. The military will also help to run checks at airports over the Christmas period because of a strike by Border Force staff.

Lord Richard Dannatt, former head of the army, said there was some unease in the military. “Soldiers might decide they’ve had enough of bailing the government out of the muddles it gets itself into,” he added. “They might think, ‘I joined to be a soldier, not a strike-breaker’.”

Downing Street defended the government’s decision to stick to existing public sector pay offers recommended by independent review bodies, which were accepted by ministers in July.

The NHS offer comprised a pay increase for more than 1mn staff of at least £1,400 a year in England, backdated to April 2022. Some staff have been offered more than £1,400, providing them with a pay increase of 4 per cent.

But the RCN, which balloted nurses on strikes, has demanded a pay increase of 19 per cent — 5 per cent above retail price inflation. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, on Monday told LBC this was “more than could be afforded”.

Starmer said ministers should hold face-to-face pay talks with union leaders.

Unison, Britain’s biggest union, said its members had voted to accept an average 7.5 per cent pay increase offered to health staff by the Scottish government, indicating a possible benchmark for a deal in England.

YouGov’s Wells said polling confirmed that weak governments are blamed for industrial unrest and disruption. James Callaghan’s Labour government suffered heavy damage during the 1978-79 “winter of discontent”.

A YouGov poll last week found 46 per cent of voters blamed the government for industrial action by nurses and ambulance workers, while 17 per cent accused the unions.

Sunak’s spokesman criticised unions for coordinating action to maximise disruption.

Downing Street continued to insist that bearing down on public sector pay was vital for controlling high inflation. However, annual growth in private sector pay currently far outstrips that in the public sector.

Labour has refused to take sides in the strikes and Jack Straw, a former cabinet minister and adviser to Callaghan’s government, said Starmer had played his hand well.

“In the past, strikes have been a particular problem for Labour governments — partly because unions were more powerful, including institutionally within the party,” he added.

“But Keir has played things very carefully, hopefully distinguishing between what the unions are calling for and the position the party is taking.” Starmer has banned Labour frontbenchers from joining picket lines.

Chris Hopkins, political research director for Savanta, said Labour was largely seen as a bystander.

Savanta research has found 40 per cent of voters blamed the government for the rail strikes, while 35 per cent accused the unions and 12 per cent the workers.

Additional reporting by Philip Georgiadis

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