Army could be called in to deal with strike disruption, minister says

MYTHOLMROYD,  - FEBRUARY 15:  Soldiers from The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland , help to shore up flood defences as Storm Dennis begins to make landfall in the UK on February 15, 2020 in Mytholmroyd, United Kingdom. In the wake of last week's Storm Ciara, people in the West Yorkshire Calder Valley are expecting to be flooded yet again. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The army are sometimes used for crises at home, including shoring up flood defences during storms. (Getty Images)

The Conservative Party chairman has warned the army might be called in to deal with strike disruption as he accused unions of playing into Vladimir Putin's hands and dividing society.

Nadhim Zahawi's comments come as a wave of industrial action looms across multiple sectors in the run up to Christmas.

More than 40,000 rail workers from the RMT union are set to hold multiple 48-hour walkouts in December, while another transport union has called additional strikes.

Nurses are set to hold their biggest strike in NHS history this month over pay and conditions, while a number of other workers in vital services, including Royal Mail staff, lecturers and teachers, are also taking action.

Making assurances that the government has all of this in hand, Zahawi told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show: "We are operationalising contingency plans with a surge capacity to make sure people are protected."

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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 29: British Minister without Portfolio Nadhim Zahawi arrives in Downing Street to attend the weekly cabinet meeting in London, United Kingdom on November 29, 2022. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Minister without portfolio Nadhim Zahawi accused unions of dividing society before Christmas. (Getty Images)

The minister without portfolio said the UK's Cobra committee for national emergencies is keeping a close eye on the situation, and that military personnel have been trained-up and are ready to fill the gaps during strikes if required.

However, Zahawi didn't say anything about concessions or new offers being made to prevent the strikes going ahead in the first place.

The wave of industrial disputes come as CPI inflation in the UK sits at 11.1%, mainly due to soaring fuel and food prices.

Drawing attention to causes outside the country by taking aim at Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Zahawi said: "President Putin has used energy as a weapon because he's failing in his illegal war in Ukraine, and he knows that energy is a weapon, so gas prices have spiked.

"The OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) have said in the autumn statement that the bulk of the reason we have this high inflation, at 11%, is because of energy."

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A NHS nurse prepares to march from St Thomas' Hospital to Downing Street to protest against the NHS Pay Review Body's recommendation of a 3% pay rise for NHS staff in England on 30th July 2021 in London, United Kingdom. The protest march was supported by Unite the union, which has called on incoming NHS England Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard to ensure that a NHS pay rise comes from new Treasury funds rather than existing NHS budgets and which is shortly expected to put a consultative ballot for industrial action to its members. (photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Nurses are demanding a 19% pay rise amid soaring inflation, and after public sector pay was held back for many years. (Getty Images)

However, there are a number of other factors at play, including the COVID pandemic disrupting supply chains, which then struggled to meet a huge boom in consumer demand once lockdown restrictions were eased.

Putting that aside, public sector workers in the UK will argue that their pay has been held back for far longer and that their dispute goes back further than the current inflationary surge.

The Royal College of Nursing has demanded a 19% pay rise, compared to the government's offer of 3%, while teachers are currently asking for 12%, instead of the current 5% on the table.

But Zahawi argued that the way to deal with the cost of living crisis is "by bearing down on inflation, and therefore being disciplined about public and private sector pay".

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Britain's Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson looks on, at Britain's Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool, Britain, September 28, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said teachers are right to argue for better pay and conditions. (Reuters)

Also appearing on the show was Labour's shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson, who said teachers are "right to argue for a better deal in terms of pay, but also wider terms of conditions".

She added: "When I speak to teachers across our country, and school support staff too, they tell me how demoralised they are, how they feel that they've been insulted and derided by the government during the pandemic, when I think parents know how hard they've been working, and they want a better deal.

"The unions are desperate to sit down around the table and have a conversation with ministers around this, who are refusing to discuss pay.

"If I were education secretary, I'd be sat around the table trying to get a compromise. It's often somewhere in the middle, and that’s why it's a process of negotiation, it's about pay, but it's also about terms and conditions.

"What teachers tell me they feel is that they're demoralised, the government hasn't had their back, and they want to know that there is hope for the future."