LONDON ( Associated Press) – The British government is sending 1,200 troops to cover striking frontline and ambulance workers, officials announced Sunday. Several public sector unions have called for a strike in the week before Christmas.
Ambulance workers were due to go on strike on Wednesday, joining nurses, railway workers, passport officers and postal workers who have been staging separate walkouts in the coming weeks.
Britain’s most intense strike wave in decades was responding to the crisis of survival posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising food and energy prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nearly 417,000 working days were lost to strikes during the month of October, the highest figure in a decade.
Unions are demanding a wage hike to keep pace with inflation, which stood at 10.7% in November, slightly lower than 11.1% in October but still a 40-year record.
The Conservative government alleges that the claimed double-digit increase will further fuel inflation and has tried to blame union leaders for upsetting citizens. In an interview published in the Sun tabloid on Sunday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called union leaders “smilers who want to steal Christmas for their own political purposes”.
Government minister Oliver Dowden said, “It would be irresponsible to let inflation and public sector wages spiral out of control.”
“We are making progress with the economy. But don’t jeopardize it with these unsustainable demands,” he told the BBC.
The government believes public opinion will turn against unions as Britons postpone hospital appointments, cancel trains and delay travel over the Christmas season. But opinion polls show high levels of support for workers, particularly nurses, whose strikes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are the first in a century of history for their union, the Royal College of Nurses.
Nurses and ambulance workers have said they will respond to emergencies during their strike.
Onay Kasab, the national head of the Unite union, said, “We have made a commitment that our members will step out of the picket line and get into an ambulance if there is an emergency that needs to be covered.”
But Matthew Taylor, who heads the health service for Britain’s Health Confederation, said patients would be at risk and called on the government and unions to make concessions.
“We are in the middle of winter and we have a health service that is difficult to manage even on a normal day without labor functions,” he told the BBC. “So there would be a risk to patients. There’s no question about it.”