Ministers have been accused of a “dangerous” attitude toward strikes as the country braces itself for a wave of walkouts that threaten to bring parts of Britain to a standstill.
On Monday, an emergency Cobra meeting will discuss intensified plans to call up civil servants and military personnel. The second meeting will take place just two days later, 24 hours prior to the unprecedented nurses strike.
But just hours after they warned patients would face “significant” risks, ministers rejected an offer from nursing leaders to suspend Thursday’s action in return for pay talks with the health secretary.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused ministers of a “dangerous” and “irresponsible” stance and said they had turned down a proposition “too good to refuse”.
Armed forces personnel are being sent out to hospitals in the country by the government to learn about vehicles and prepare for planned ambulance strikes on December 21st.
Ministers confirmed that military personnel are being trained and others are being trained in support of a range services, including Border Force at port and airport ports. This is amid travel misfortune this Christmas.
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said unions had threatened to cause “disruption for millions of hardworking people” and accused them of putting livelihoods at risk “in order to push their pay demands to the front of the queue”.
While the government would do all it could to mitigate the impact of the industrial action unions had to “get back round the table and call off these damaging strikes,” he said.
He also repeated controversial claims that families would have to pay an extra £1,000 a year to meet “union demands”, a figure opposition parties have condemned as disingenuous.
Mr Streeting told Times Radio that the attitude of ministers was “dangerous”.
“If only the government would be willing to talk and the fact that they are not taking that offer (from nursing leaders), I think it is dangerous. I think it’s irresponsible. And I think it just serves to underline the fact that the government is spoiling for a fight with the unions.”
Earlier, Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said she was willing to suspend Thursday’s strike if the health secretary, Steve Barclay, agreed to come to the table and discuss a deal. She suggested she was open to negotiating a compromise on the pay demands.
In a rare move, the chief nursing officer of a hospital trust in Bristol, Prof Steven Hams, also wrote an open letter to Rishi Sunak calling on him to facilitate “urgent” negotiations between nurses and the health secretary.
As the health service scrambles to deal with the potential consequences of the walkout, Sir Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, warned the strikes could knock “off course” attempts to cut waiting lists, as the UK enters its fifth Covid wave this year.
RCN has demanded a 5 percent increase above inflation in nurses’ pay, warning that experienced nurses are now 20 percent worse off because of a series if below-inflation award since 2010.
Foreign secretary James Cleverly said that Mr Barclay was “willing to talk” to the RCN but that pay negotiations were the NHS’s responsibility, not the government’s.
He said it would be “wrong” for a government minister to be involved in salary talks, saying: “It would completely undermine the leadership of the NHS.”
He also defended the government’s position saying it kept “politics” out of the health service.
Mr Streeting accused ministers of planning to blame staff for “an NHS crisis which is squarely their fault”.
“People will rightly blame the government not the unions if these strikes go ahead,” he toldSky News on Sunday.
Ms Cullen said it was “despicable” that UK nurses were the “lowest paid in Europe”.
“Nurses aren’t greedy people. They are not asking for an incredible pay rise, they are asking just to be able to make ends meet,” she told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme.
Royal Mail workers staged an additional strike on Sunday in an ever bitter dispute over job, pay, and conditions.
A strike will be held Tuesday by around 40,000 Rail, Maritime and Transport members. It will last for 48 hours. Passengers on trains have been reminded to travel only if absolutely necessary.
The government stated that it was working with Network Rail, freight companies, and other organizations to avoid delays and ensure timely delivery of coal, steel, and waste.
Staff at Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff airports will strike for eight days from December 23 to New Year’s Eve.
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