A wave of industrial action gripping the UK will intensify on Wednesday as Royal Mail workers go on strike alongside rail industry staff over pay and employment terms.
Consumers have been warned to prepare for late deliveries of Christmas presents amid action by postal workers, while commuters are struggling with travel misery owing to strikes by rail employees.
On Thursday, the first nationwide strike by NHS nurses organised by the Royal College of Nursing is due to go ahead over pay. The UK’s chief nursing officers urged the union to do more to protect patient safety during the walkout.
Other industrial action in the UK’s “winter of discontent” involves ambulance drivers, Border Force officials and Highways Agency staff.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak told the cabinet on Tuesday he would not back down. “While the government will do all we can to minimise disruption, the only way we can stop it completely is by unions going back around the table and calling off these strikes,” he said.
Downing Street said pay restraint was needed to “get a grip on inflation”.
The industrial action by Royal Mail workers over pay and working conditions, led by the Communication Workers Union, first erupted in the summer and now involves four days of walkouts before Christmas. The CWU estimates about 115,000 Royal Mail workers are members.
Analysts warned a resolution seems far off even though the company has increased its pay offer since the summer from 2 per cent to a “final and best offer” of 9 per cent over 18 months, plus changes to employment terms.
Commuters were hit on Tuesday as thousands of members of the RMT and TSSA rail unions walked out in their latest strikes over pay and changes to working arrangements involving train companies and Network Rail, the infrastructure operator.
Four days of industrial action this week will leave just 20 per cent of services running.
RMT leader Mick Lynch said on Tuesday that there was no deal “in sight”, but said he hoped new talks with the rail industry could help “develop proposals our members can support”.
On Monday, RMT members voted to reject a pay and reform package from Network Rail under which salaries would increase by 9 per cent over two years.
But some railway executives were privately buoyed by what they regarded as a relatively close result, with 63.6 per cent of those who voted rejecting the offer. The TSSA has urged members to accept a similar deal.
Transport secretary Mark Harper told GB News that the unions were losing public sympathy. “I think the tide is turning on people seeing that the offers we have made are reasonable,” he said.
Port of Felixstowe, the UK’s biggest container port, said on Tuesday that striking workers had voted to accept a pay deal of 8.5 per cent, plus £1,000, from January.
Meanwhile Dame Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England, wrote to Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, to urge the union to do more to protect patients during walkouts scheduled for this Thursday and Tuesday next week.
May urged the RCN in her letter to ensure it was taking steps to “alleviate unnecessary distress for patients” caught up in strikes. The letter was also signed by the chief nursing officers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The industrial action looks set to go ahead after the collapse of talks on Monday between health secretary Steve Barclay and Cullen.
Barclay refused to discuss the RCN’s demand for a 19 per cent pay increase for nurses, although Downing Street said the health secretary’s door was “still open” for talks on issues such as rosters and leave.
The industrial action will affect more than 60 NHS trusts in England and Wales and a further 11 in Northern Ireland.
The RCN has agreed to exempt a number of departments and services from industrial action including chemotherapy, dialysis and paediatric intensive care.
The union has also agreed that a Christmas Day level of service will be offered in adult accident and emergency departments.
The RCN hit back at May’s letter, saying it was “already out of date” after a number of additional agreements to protect services, including emergency cancer treatment, had been reached with senior clinicians.