UK troops on standby as public services set for Christmas strikes

About 2,000 military personnel, civil servants and volunteers being drafted in to provide cover

British troops are among those being prepared to cover public services roles during the pre-Christmas strikes. AFP
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Hundreds of British troops are on standby to provide cover as ambulance crews, firefighters and Border Force staff prepare a strike across public services in the run-up to Christmas.

About 2,000 military personnel, civil servants and other volunteers from across government have been training as part of the contingency planning, said the Cabinet Office.

This includes up to 600 armed forces personnel and 700 staff from the government’s specialist Surge and Rapid Response Team, as well as from other parts of the Civil Service.

Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi said it was the “right and responsible thing to do” as ministers sought to minimise disruption to the public.

But he provoked a furious response from trade unions after he linked the strikes to the war in Ukraine, saying they are “exactly what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to see”.

Mr Zahawi said the cost-of-living crisis was the result of the energy price shock after Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, and that above-inflation pay awards would simply “embed” inflation in the system.

Strikes in Britain – in pictures

“We’re coming up to Christmas," he told the BBC. "It’s unfair, in my view, for the unions to really damage and disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods at Christmas.

“They should really rethink and they should reflect on this because that is exactly what Putin wants to see, that division.”

Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen angrily denounced his remarks “as a new low for this government”.

“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute,” Ms Cullen said.

“Record numbers of nurses are leaving because they feel undervalued and patients are paying the price.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said Mr Zahawi's attempt to portray nurses and ambulance drivers as “allies of Vladimir Putin” was “as ridiculous as it is disgraceful”.

“Rather than running down our NHS [National Health Service] in an act of catastrophic self-harm and threatening to bring in the military, the minister should instead ask himself why health staff are leaving in droves,” Ms Graham said.

Sara Gorton, head of health at the Unison union, said: “Instead of taking responsibility for trying to solve the growing staffing crisis, ministers want to ratchet up the rhetoric and pick fights with ambulance workers and their NHS colleagues.

"This won’t go down well with the public.”

UK nurses to stage walkout over pay row - video

Unions across public services are preparing to carry out strike action or ballot their members over pay as they seek to ease the squeeze on living standards from soaring inflation.

As well as ambulance staff, nurses in the NHS are due to hold two days of strikes this month while junior doctors are also set to be balloted on industrial action.

There is expected to be widespread disruption to transport in the run-up to Christmas with further rail strikes, walkouts by baggage handlers at Heathrow and possible action by Border Force staff.

Meanwhile, the Fire Brigades Union is balloting its members and industrial action is continuing at the Royal Mail.

The Cabinet Office said no decisions had been made yet on posting troops, but that they were part of the “range of options available” should the strikes go ahead as planned.

Mr Zahawi said that while he was “absolutely conscious” of how difficult it was for many workers, the country simply could not afford inflation or above-inflation pay awards.

He said rising prices were being driven by higher energy costs due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, as he appealed to unions to drop their demands.

“To ask for a 19 per cent pay rise [for nurses] which would cost the NHS £10 billion [$12bn] I think is the wrong thing to do right now,” he told Sky News.

“If you accept all the inflation-level pay rises, that is about £28 billion. It would cost every household just short of £1,000.

"That is unsustainable when we are trying to be fiscally disciplined and control inflation.”

Updated: December 04, 2022, 9:14 PM