Ministers are poised to recruit up to 600 members of the armed forces to face the wave of pre-Christmas strikes planned by unions.
Nadhim Zahawi, the conservative president, has revealed the government is considering using the military to run ambulances or staff border crossings amid work stoppages.
He also warned unions not to “divide” Britain over pay disputes over the festive period as he blamed the cost of living crisis on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But Mr Zahawi provoked a backlash from union leaders by suggesting Britain’s public sector exclusions were “exactly what (Vladimir) Putin wants to see”.
In addition to nationwide rail strikes, bus drivers, postal workers, teachers and nurses are all planning industrial action in the run up to Christmas.
The union representing border forces and passport office staff also backed the strike.
Amid the threat of widespread disruption, Zahawi confirmed this morning that the government’s Cobra Emergency Committee was putting contingency plans in place.
He insisted it was ‘the right and responsible thing to do’ in the face of industrial disputes across the public sector.
The Cabinet Office said around 2,000 military, civil servants and volunteers across government are being trained to support a range of public services – including at ports and airports – in the event of a strike.
These include up to 600 members of the armed forces and 700 staff from Whitehall’s Specialist Surge and Rapid Response Team, which was set up in 2015, as well as other parts of the civil service.
Ministers are also planning the potential deployment of military personnel to drive ambulances and undertake firefighting duties.
“Decisions still need to be made on the deployment of troops for these tasks, but they are part of the range of options available if strike action in these areas goes as planned,” the Cabinet Office said.
“The priority over the next few weeks is to protect the public who may need to access emergency assistance and to limit disruption as much as possible, particularly at a time when increased numbers of people will be traveling over the festive period, and where NHS services are under enormous pressure due to the impact of Covid.
Nadhim Zahawi, the conservative president, revealed the government was ready to recruit from the army to deal with the wave of strikes before Christmas planned by the unions.
Ministers are considering using the military to drive ambulances or staff to border points amid work stoppages
As well as nationwide rail strikes, bus drivers, postal workers, teachers and nurses (pictured above) are all planning industrial action in the run up to Christmas.
This morning Zahawi told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: ‘We have a very strong team at Cobra who are doing a lot of work looking at what we need to do to minimize disruption to people’s lives. »
“We’re looking at the military, we’re looking at a specialist response force that we actually put in place several years ago — a surge capability.
“In the unfortunate circumstances if you have a Border Force strike, you need to make sure there is minimal disruption.
“We have to make sure that the borders are always secure, and that is something we guarantee.
“Things like driving ambulances and other parts of the public sector – we must try to minimize disruption. »
But government sources this morning dismissed reports that pharmacists might be used to ease the pressure on the NHS during working hours for nurses and other staff.
It has been reported that ministers are considering allowing chemists to diagnose patients with minor ailments and prescribe antibiotics.
But senior sources said that while there were ongoing discussions about how to improve patient access to GP services, “no decision” had been made and they did not form part of contingency planning to deal with strikes.
With the prospect of unions plunging Britain into a “winter of discontent”, Zawahi warned this was not the time for them to demand inflationary wage increases for the workers.
He stressed that ministers still hoped the strikes would be called off, but said it would be “unsustainable” for staff to receive pay rises such as the 19 per cent rise nurses are demanding.
“If inflation is priced in, it will hurt those families, those nurses, even more in the long run,” Zahawi added, pointing out how the government had accepted the decisions of independent pay review bodies on public sector salaries.
He criticized Vladimir Putin for using ‘energy as a weapon’ when the Russian president ‘failed so badly’ in its attempt to invade Ukraine.
The conservative president blamed the Kremlin’s actions for soaring inflation rates and insisted workers should not “chase inflation” in their wages.
He added: “Now is the time to come together and send a very clear message to Mr. Putin that we will not be divided.”
Zahawi has warned unions not to ‘divide’ Britain over the festive period.
“It’s unfair, in my view, that unions are really damaging … and disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods at Christmas,” he later told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme.
“They should really rethink and reflect on this, because this is exactly what Putin wants to see, this division. »
“Let us not divide, let us stand together.
Zahawi’s attempt to blame Russia for the cost of living crisis has provoked a backlash.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘Using Russia’s war in Ukraine as justification for a real pay cut for nurses in the UK is a new low for this government.
“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to deal with our dispute.
“The care staff cannot afford their food and other bills and still fear the worst for the energy this winter.
“But our campaign is about more than the current cost of living crisis – it’s a call for help for an NHS that has had a decade of neglect.
“A record number of nurses are leaving because they feel undervalued, and patients are paying the price.
“Ten days before the start of our strike, I repeat my promise to meet with ministers to settle our dispute.
“Instead of negotiating with the nurses, they choose the strike.
Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said: ‘It is ridiculous and insulting to suggest that Vladimir Putin is responsible for the striking nurses.
“The blame lies squarely with this Conservative government’s chaotic failure to find a solution.
“Tory ministers have wasted billions of taxpayers’ money on dodgy PPE contracts and are now refusing to offer nurses a fair pay rise.
“It is a clear demonstration of how incoherent Zahawi and this conservative government really are.”
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