Minister urges union leaders to give families and military 'a break' and call off strikes

ITV News' Kathryn Samson reports on the political context around the pre-Christmas week of industrial action

A senior minister has urged union leaders to give families and members of the military "a break" this Christmas, as he called for upcoming strikes to be called off even at this "late hour".

Some 1,200 troops from the Army, Navy and RAF are set to fill in for ambulance drivers and border staff during widespread walkouts over the festive period, with more than 1,000 civil servants also drafted in to help.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing, meanwhile, are due to stage a second strike on December 20, with the potential for further strikes in January.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden said the government remains "resolute" on pay, arguing that ministers had a duty to keep finances under control.

'I think it would be irresponsible for us to allow pay to get out of control,' Oliver Dowden said

"The only way we can get the service running as normal is for those strikes to be called off," he told ITV News.

"I would urge union leaders to give families a break this Christmas, to give the military a break this Christmas and to call of those strikes even at this late hour."

When pressed if the government is considering changing its attitude to public sector pay rises, the minister replied: "I think it would be irresponsible for us to allow pay to get out of control, which could have the effect both on the public finances and on inflation."

His comments came after unions claimed military personnel are not “sufficiently trained” to plug staffing gaps on the front line, while a defence chief warned the armed forces don't have "spare capacity" to do so.

Ministers have insisted their chief concern is public safety but unions have accused the government of trying to “mask” the “effectiveness” of strike action, having spent time on contingency planning that could have been “better” invested in securing a deal. They warned military personnel are not properly qualified to guard the borders or drive ambulances, insisting troops should not be put in such an “invidious” position when they already have “enough on their plate”.

Ambulance crews are set to strike on December 21 and 28 Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Meanwhile, the Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Tony Radakin said the military is “busy” and should not be treated as “spare capacity” in the strikes.

The armed forces need to focus on their “primary role”, and it would be “slightly perilous” to treat them as the “ultimate backstop” for incidents such as major industrial action, Admiral Sir Tony told the Sunday Telegraph.

But he declined to be drawn on “political debates”, as he stressed the military are directed by the government and “serve the nation”.

The warnings followed another weekend of industrial action, after rail workers went on a 48-hour strike and Royal Mail staff walked out earlier in the week in a long-running dispute over pay and working conditions, with further industrial action planned over Christmas.

Rishi Sunak labelled the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) "Grinches that want to steal Christmas for their own political ends" as he claimed the union had been offered deals that are “fair” and “affordable to taxpayers” but these had been rejected.

The union's boss Mick Lynch told ITV News that his members "want to get an agreement as quickly as possible" but that it takes "two parties" to achieve this, warning strikes won't stop until they are offered an acceptable deal.

Ambulance crews in England are due to walk out for two days on December 21 and 28 in a row over pay, while border staff in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) will strike for eight days from December 23 until New Year’s Eve. Health Secretary Steve Barclay said his “number one priority” is keeping patients “as safe as possible” as he reiterated the government’s position that union demands are “not affordable”, though has said he is “keen” to "continue a dialogue" with unions.

He said that "we have got to recognise that it is the trade unions that need to ensure that there is sufficient cover to meet their obligations in terms of life-threatening responses".

Steve Barclay during a visit to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London. Credit: PA

But Unite, which is co-ordinating the ambulance strikes with GMB and Unison, accused ministers of “hollowing out” the NHS, maintaining those taking industrial action are in fact “trying to save the service”.

GMB and Unison said those in power had opted to “dig in their heels” on pay with the health service “already on its knees”, making disruption appear “inevitable”. Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, also 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”.

Labour shadow minister Stephen Kinnock warned that nurses are resorting to “eating the leftovers from patients’ meals” while the government seeks to “smash working people”.

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“The same applies to civil servants who are being pulled in from elsewhere, also leaving their jobs uncovered. “Instead of throwing good money after bad trying to desperately mask the effectiveness of our industrial action, the government should put a serious offer on the table to deal with the cost-of-living crisis that they have created for their own workforce. That is the only way to resolve this dispute.” The troops drafted in to cover for striking workers include 600 ambulance drivers, plus a further 150 providing logistical support. Community first responders will also be used to help manage demand for medical care.

Meanwhile, military personnel will join civil servants filling in for striking Border Force staff. They will help “minimise disruption for passengers” by checking documents and passports. The NHS will enact “tried and tested” plans to mitigate risks to patient safety and manage disruption, the government said, while trusts will work with unions to agree on a safe level of cover. Health chiefs have written to hospitals urging them to free up a maximum number of beds by safely discharging patients in advance of the ambulance strikes. But Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, warned this will be a challenge.

Nurses have also staged strikes amid a wave of industrial action during December. Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

While he agrees with the “principles” in the letter, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the demands will be “really difficult” to achieve. The Cabinet Office is also set to publish a new “resilience framework” on Monday, bringing together all levels of government, as well as the private sector, charities and the public to “bolster” the UK’s preparedness for industrial action. Mr Barclay said: “NHS staff do an incredible job and it is deeply regrettable some union members are going ahead with further strike action.

“My number one priority is to keep patients as safe as possible and we are stepping up preparations across government and the NHS, including making best use of the armed forces, volunteers and freeing up capacity to mitigate disruption and ensure safe staffing levels. “People who need emergency and life-threatening care should continue to come forward as normal, or use NHS 111 online for urgent advice. “I have listened to unions and am open to further discussions but their demands are not affordable in the economic circumstances.”