UK ministers will on Monday meet to co-ordinate a response to one of the most disruptive weeks of strike action in recent history, as concerns mount over emergency cover when ambulance workers walk out on Wednesday.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, said on Sunday he was still waiting to receive solid assurances from unions that they would provide emergency responses in life threatening or other emergency situations.
Nurses, ambulance workers, customs and immigration staff, postal and rail workers will all walk out in the coming days, leaving ministers with a growing logistical and political headache.
The Cobra emergency committee will meet on Monday to discuss how to keep the country’s vital national services going, with the army on standby to provide ambulance cover.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, has said ministers will have two days after Tuesday’s strikes to engage with pay talks, after which the union is expected to announce fresh strikes in the new year.
Public support for the strike action by health workers remains relatively strong and some Tory MPs have urged Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, to raise the pay offer to NHS workers. In July, the Independent NHS Pay Review Body recommended a £1,400 increase for most NHS staff.
A YouGov poll this month found that 64 per cent of people support the nurses’ strike with 28 per cent opposed, while the public support industrial action by paramedics by 50-40 per cent.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of the Unison union, which represents many NHS staff, said ministers had refused to discuss “the elephant in the room” — pay — in recent meetings.
“None of our members want to be on strike,” she told the BBC on Monday. “The government has been completely intransigent.”
McAnea said that “trust has broken down” with the government. “They would have to come up with more than ‘let’s talk about this’ for us to call off the strike,” she said.
The Unison leader said that unions were working with local NHS trusts to come up with a plan to provide “life and limb” ambulance cover during the dispute on Wednesday.
She acknowledged that because hospitals were making advanced preparations to handle emergencies during the strike, those cases could be seen more quickly than in normal circumstances.
Sunak has so far refused to make pay offers that go beyond the ones proposed by independent pay review bodies, insisting that public sector pay restraint is needed to bear down on inflation.
But a wave of strikes through the winter could corrode support for his government, particularly in disputes where the public — at least for now — support those on the picket lines, particularly health workers.
Meanwhile, military leaders have expressed concern that armed forces personnel are being used to fill in for striking workers.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of the defence staff, told the Sunday Telegraph the military should not be treated as “spare capacity” during strikes.
He said they should focus on their “primary role”, and it would be “slightly perilous” to treat them as the “ultimate backstop” for industrial disputes.
About 600 personnel will drive vehicles and another 150 will give “logistical support” as around 10,000 ambulance staff in England and Wales strike on Wednesday.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, former business secretary, hit back on the concerns, telling the BBC’s Westminster Hour on Sunday: “I think the job of the military is to do what they’re told by civilian authorities. It’s not for the military to be expressing their views. I don’t think this is constitutionally how it should be.”