Britain steps up contingency plans as weeks of strike chaos begin

Royal Mail workers rally outside Parliament in London, on Dec 9, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is planning for military staff and civil servants to cover for striking workers at air and sea ports as the UK braces for industrial action set to cause major disruptions in the coming weeks.

The measures are among contingency plans due to be discussed at an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday. 

Strikes are planned for almost every day through the rest of the month, with nurses, ambulance staff, rail, postal workers and border officials demanding pay rises in the biggest wave of industrial strife since the 1980s. 

Unions say their members are seeing wages fall in real terms, with inflation running at more than 11 per cent – the highest in four decades.

The government has agreed to 5 per cent pay rises on average for public-sector workers, and insists inflation-matching increases or above are unaffordable and would undermine the fight against inflation. Handing every government worker an 11 per cent rise would cost taxpayers about £28 billion (S$46 billion), the government has said.

More than 40,000 rail workers are due to hold two 48-hour strikes starting on Tuesday, affecting services across the country in the run-up to Christmas. Further action is planned from Dec 24 and early in the New Year. 

Unprecedented walkouts by as many as 100,000 nursing staff on Dec 15 and Dec 20 appear set to go ahead after ministers on Sunday rejected a nursing union offer to suspend industrial action in return for talks over pay.

The Royal College of Nursing is demanding a pay rise of 5 per cent above the RPI inflation rate – currently at 14.2 per cent – to make up for years of wage restraint.

Around 1,000 Border Force officers are due to walk out on eight days from Dec 23 to Dec 31, threatening delays to immigration and customs checks at Heathrow and Gatwick airports among others, and the port of New Haven in southern England.

Military personnel and civil servants will receive training over the next weeks to support a range of services including Border Force at airports and ports in the event of strike action, the government said in a statement Sunday.

The armed forces will also be deployed to hospital trusts across the country to “familiarise themselves with vehicles” ahead of an ambulance strike planned for Dec 21.

A second emergency meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday. Both Cobra gatherings will be led by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden and involve transport, health, home office and defense ministers.

“The stance the unions have taken will cause disruption for millions of hardworking people over the coming weeks,” Mr Dowden in a statement. “The government will do all it can to mitigate the impact of this action, but the only way to stop the disruption completely is for union bosses to get back round the table and call off these damaging strikes.” BLOOMBERG

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