UK government digs in as industrial action escalates


The government remains “resolute” in its determination to face down the unions, cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said on Sunday ahead of what is set to be the most widespread week of strike action in recent British history.

On Tuesday, nurses from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to take part in their second 12-hour stint of industrial action, amid calls from the Royal College of Nursing for a 19 per cent pay increase.

More than 10,000 ambulance workers will walk out the next day, and staff at Border Force which controls customs and immigration begin industrial action from December 23. Compounding the disruption over Christmas, postal workers will strike on December 23 and December 24 and another round of train strikes is planned on Christmas Eve.

The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the government’s door was always “open to engagement with the unions”. But he defended the decision by ministers to stick with July recommendations from the Independent NHS Pay Review Body for a £1,400 increase for most NHS staff. Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, has warned that strikes will “escalate” in the new year if the government refuses to budge.

“I think the government is being reasonable, we’re being sensible, and would urge the unions to be reasonable as well,” Dowden told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme.

“We will be resolute in response to this, because it would be irresponsible to allow public sector pay and inflation to get out of control, and we owe a wider duty to the public to make sure we keep our public finances under control,” he added.

‘I think the government is being reasonable, we’re being sensible, and would urge the unions to be reasonable as well,’ Oliver Dowden told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday © Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

Dowden’s comments came as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused Mike Lynch, general secretary of the RMT trade union of behaving like the “Grinch” who stole Christmas and said unions were “causing misery for millions with transport strikes in particular cruelly timed”. Writing in the Sun newspaper, he added: “Rail workers and border officers have been offered deals that are fair — and affordable to taxpayers.” 

Meanwhile, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation urged trade unions and the government to “try to find a way through”, warning that this week’s strikes pose a risk to patients.

Upcoming UK strike action

NURSES: Nurses from across England, Wales and Northern Ireland will take part in a second 12-hour walk out on December 20 over concerns regarding pay and working conditions. The Royal College of Nurses has confirmed that some services will be exempt from strike action such as those relating to paediatric intensive care and chemotherapy.

AMBULANCE: More than 10,000 ambulance workers affiliated to the GMB Union and Unison in England and Wales will take part in co-ordinated industrial action on December 21 and December 28. Patients have been urged by the NHS to only call 999 if “seriously ill or injured, and there is risk to life”, while ambulances will be dispatched “where clinically appropriate”.

BORDER FORCE: The Public and Commercial Service union has confirmed that about 1,000 Border Force officials will take part in industrial action beginning on December 23, striking every day for the rest of the month except December 27. Airports affected include Heathrow, Manchester airport and Gatwick. Travellers have been warned to expect longer waiting times at UK border control.

ROYAL MAIL: Members of the Communication Workers Union are expected to strike on December 23 and December 24. Members of the public have been advised that the Royal Mail will prioritise the delivery of Covid-19 tests and other medical prescriptions, and ensure that Special Delivery and Tracked parcels are delivered. For all other mail, people have been told to deliver items ahead of the commencement of the industrial action.

RAIL: Rail workers affiliated to the Unite union will strike on December 23 and 24 on East Midlands Railway. RMT members will walk out nationally from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on December 27.

“It does seem as though the door is shut by the government when it comes to this question of pay,” he told BBC Breakfast. “So, even at this late moment, I call on both the government and the trade unions to be pragmatic, to recognise that having industrial action during a winter crisis in the health service creates risks, puts pressure on.”

It is expected that about 1,200 Armed Forces personnel will be drafted in this week to stand in for striking workers, including ambulance drivers, causing some tension at the top of the military.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the chief of defence staff, warned against relying on the military as a backstop, saying it was crucial that it was not impeded in fulfilling its “primary role”. The military are not “spare capacity” for striking workers, he said, adding: “We’re busy and we’re doing lots of things on behalf of the nation.”

The decision to deploy the army has also been criticised by unions. Onay Kasab, national lead officer for Unite, described it as a “desperate measure”.

“We do not want to see those men and women used as pawns in an industrial dispute between government and the trade unions,” he told Times Radio. “This is a hard-pressed organisation of low-paid working-class people who don’t need this on top of everything else they are currently having to deal with.”


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