Union bosses have criticized plans to deploy 1,200 troops to cover strikes, but the prime minister has hit back by calling them “Grinches” who “want to steal Christmas”.
Union chiefs claim the military are not “sufficiently trained” to guard the country’s borders or drive ambulances, and that they should not be put in such an “invidious” position when they already have “enough on their plate”.
But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said unions are “causing misery for millions” with what he said are strikes “cruelly-timed” for Christmas, particularly singling out industrial action by rail workers.
Writing in The Sun on Sunday, he said rail workers and border officers have been offered “deals that are fair and affordable” – but he made no mention of ambulance drivers or nurses.
He claimed that an “increasing number of union members want a deal”, adding that they are “tired of being foot soldiers in (RMT union boss) Mick Lynch’s class war”.
Mr Sunak added: “Even Labor have admitted the unions’ demands are unaffordable.
“But they’ll still take union money and undermine the interests of the traveling public.
“Labour back the Grinches that want to steal Christmas for their own political ends.
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“We are doing everything we can to ensure people get the Christmas they deserve.
“The army is stepping up and we’re putting in place other measures to keep services running where possible.”
The reliance on the army has prompted criticism in some quarters
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, warned the military is “no substitute” for qualified ambulance staff, while Nathan Holman, from GMB, said bringing in “untrained” personnel would be a “hindrance” rather than a help.
Without specialist training in exceeding speed limits and passing through red lights, Mr Holman said the military would only be able to respond to the “least urgent calls”.
The head of the armed forces, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, warned it was “perilous” to expect military personnel to be used routinely to cover for strikes.
He told The Sunday Telegraph that the armed forces are busy and need to “focus on our primary role”.
The UK is facing a wave of strikes this winter, with at least one walkout a day ahead of Christmasas staff from different industries seek better pay.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said his “number one priority” was keeping patients “as safe as possible” as he reiterated the government’s position that union demands are “not affordable”.
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Meanwhile, nurses are threatening to stage a fresh wave of strikes in the new year on an even larger scale if ministers fail to respond in the 48 hours following next week’s walkout.
The 48-hour countdown will begin after the Royal College of Nursing stages its second day of strikes on Tuesday.
The union’s leader Pat Cullen called for the dispute to be “wrapped up” by Christmas.
“Ministers can take away the worries of nurses who are expecting to start the year with such uncertainty,” she said.
“We aren’t looking for a miracle, it is in their gift to solve it.”
Despite the widespread disruption caused by the nurses’ first strike on Thursday, polling showed that the majority of the public were in favor of the action.
It involved around a quarter of hospitals and community teams in England, all trusts in Northern Ireland and all but one health board in Wales.