Government Cobra meeting set to consider using military and civil servants to cover for strikes

Credit: PA

Plans for military staff and civil servants to cover for striking workers in the coming weeks will be discussed at an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday.

The country is set to be hit by a wave of strikes over the coming weeks as Royal Mail staff, nurses, paramedics, rail employees and Border Force officials all stage walkouts over jobs, pay and conditions.

In further signs the escalating row does not seem to be slowing down, the health secretary refused to back down over nurses' salaries, suggesting on Monday that paying nurses more would take money away from funding NHS operations.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief executive Pat Cullen told ITV's Good Morning Britain it is not too late to avert industrial action if the government was willing to negotiate pay - but she claimed the government’s door is still “firmly shut” to talks.

Military personnel and civil servants are being trained in case they are required to be drafted in at ports and airports, as border staff prepare to strike for eight days from December 23 to New Year’s Eve.

Armed forces members will also be deployed to hospital trusts across the country to prepare to man vehicles ahead of an ambulance strike scheduled for December 21, with a significant number of military staff now expected to miss Christmas breaks.

The meeting of Cobra (civil contingencies committee) on Monday will be led by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden and attended by transport, health, home office and defence ministers.

Another meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, as the government aims to avoid scenes of widespread disruption.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden. Credit: PA

Mr Dowden urged the unions to call off the “damaging” strikes, saying: “The stance the unions have taken will cause disruption for millions of hardworking people over the coming weeks.

“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.”

The government has said it was working with Network Rail and freight companies to prevent delays and to ensure coal, steel and waste are prioritised during the latest set of strikes.

It follows a weekend that saw clashes between the government and trade union officials, with Transport Secretary Mark Harper writing in The Telegraph that some families could face a “virtual Christmas” once again due to rail strikes over the festive season.

On Sunday, the government rejected a last-minute offer from the RCN to “press pause” on strike plans this week if the health secretary entered negotiations on pay.

As things stand, thousands of RCN members are due to take part in unprecedented strike action on December 15 and December 2, with the trade union’s general secretary warning that the government is playing a “dangerous game”.

The RCN's Ms Cullen told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that she "can't get round a table to negotiate" nurses' pay with Health Secretary Steve Barclay.

She said Mr Barclay has only met her once for 45 minutes - despite a minister's claims that they have met several times - where she outlined key issues not to do with salaries because “it was very clear from the minister that I was there to talk about anything but pay”.

Ms Cullen said: "If he gets round a table with us and has realistic, honest talks, there’s a strong possibility that I will be able to go back to my council and say, ‘I recommend that we avert the strikes and continue those negotiations’.

“And I would also say the council would most certainly not be unreasonable about that.”

Ms Cullen said the RCN would be willing to meet with the government through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) if it does not want to speak to her directly, adding their door is "wide open".

But she added: “The door is firmly shut on myself and the 320,000 nurses who participated in this ballot for strike action."

Asked on BBC Breakfast if it is time for him to sit down with the RCN and “talk money”, Mr Barclay said: “We have engaged with them and we continue to be willing to do so.”

He said he does not want to take money away from clearing the NHS backlog, highlighting the seven million people currently waiting for an operation.

“I don’t want to be taking money away from clearing the backlog, which is what we would have to do – we’d have to take money away from patients waiting for operations to then fund additional pay," he added.

“And if everyone in the public sector were to get an increase in line with inflation, that would be costing £28 billion at a time when the Government has to get inflation under control, because that is the biggest factor in terms of people’s cost of living.

“So it’s right we have a balanced process. That is what an independent pay review body does.”

Head of the RCN, Pat Cullen. Credit: PA

“The Government is looking desperate and appears to be misleading the public,” Ms Cullen earlier said in a statement.

“The Foreign Secretary is completely wrong to say this is a matter for the NHS and not ministers. The Government makes the decisions on pay for NHS staff. They must correct the record and start being honest.

“My offer of negotiations has not been accepted today – the Government is playing a dangerous game."

Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton echoed that message.

“The wage rise given to health workers this year simply hasn’t been enough to stop staff leaving in droves. Without enough employees in the NHS, patients will go on waiting too long for ambulances and for treatment to start,” she said.

“Instead of putting plans in place for the strike days, ministers should be concentrating all their efforts on ending the disputes.”

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Foreign Secretary James Cleverly ruled out talks on pay between Steve Barclay and nursing unions, as he said that the government had followed independent recommendations on pay.

“Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason – it is to take the politics out of this sort of stuff,” he said.

But one senior Tory MP called it a “good day for the RCN”.

Steve Brine, chairman of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, told Channel 4 News: “To use a painful analogy, they’ve converted the spot kick and it’s 1-0 today, because they’ve really put the ball back in the government’s court.”

Another MP, former Cabinet minister Damien Green, said that some unions appeared to be seeking a “quasi-general strike”.