Army fury as soldiers told to give up their Christmas to cover striking workers

Pte Ciara Lonergan of the 3rd Battalion Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment helps serve a full Christmas lunch to homeless people in Canterbury, Kent, on Wednesday - Gareth Fuller/PA
Pte Ciara Lonergan of the 3rd Battalion Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment helps serve a full Christmas lunch to homeless people in Canterbury, Kent, on Wednesday - Gareth Fuller/PA

Soldiers should not be made to give up Christmas to cover for striking NHS workers who earn more than them, senior military figures have told ministers.

The Government is set to rely on hundreds of Armed Forces personnel to stand in for Border Force officers at airports during eight days of strikes this December, and potentially to cover for ambulance drivers and firefighters as well.

But The Telegraph has been told that the military believes it is “not right” for soldiers, who are banned by law from striking themselves, to replace striking public sector workers over the festive season.

Senior members of the Armed Forces are understood to have also warned ministers that the plan risks weakening the “operational capability” of the military to respond to threats.

One senior defence source said: "You've only got to look at a private soldier on £22,000 a year and whose pay scales have not kept up with inflation for the last decade having to give up Christmas, or come straight off operations, to cover for people who want 19 per cent and are already paid in excess of what he or she would be, and it’s just not right.

“We’ve got to the stage now where the Government’s first lever it reaches for every time there is any difficulty, whether it's floods, strikes, all the rest of it, is the Armed Forces, as opposed to it being the last resort.”

Earlier this week, the Government announced that 2,000 military personnel and volunteers were undergoing training to stand in to support a range of services, including Border Force officers at airports.

More troops could be sent out to drive ambulances during an NHS strike on Dec 21, although an official request has not yet been made. Servicemen could also serve as firefighters if members of the Fire Brigades Union back industrial action.

One military source said that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, shared concerns that the Armed Forces are seen as a "free good” and had raised the issue on Tuesday at Cabinet. However, a spokesman for Mr Wallace insisted this was not the case.

It came as Border Force staff announced eight days of strikes at Britain’s largest airports from Dec 23, leaving Christmas travellers facing holiday flight delays.

The Public and Commercial Services union will mount the action at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff airports, as well as Newhaven port.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak threatened to ban ambulance drivers and other emergency workers from striking as part of “tough” new laws to tackle a wave of public sector strikes.

Ministers are also looking at a new legal minimum level of service that the NHS and other public services must provide during strikes, as well as considering a ban on coordinated strikes between public sector unions.

On Wednesday night, Tory MPs urged the Prime Minister to go further - saying the Government needed to act with more "urgency".

Sir Christopher Chope said: "The trouble is that it's not as though all this has bubbled up at the last minute. We have known it's in the offing. It's all very well talking tough, but people need to be protected now.

"It is essentially an issue about power. And preventing yourself as the Government from being held to ransom.”

In another sign of the damage the strikes may cause, on Wednesday Britain’s biggest power station, Drax, was forced to promise it would be able to keep the lights on during next week’s rail strikes - despite warnings that deliveries of fuel to keep it running would be significantly disrupted.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party said it would rip up strike laws if it comes to power - making it easier for unions to take industrial action.

The Telegraph understands there is tension in the military at the idea that soldiers who may have been due to enjoy their Christmas break will be made to cover striking NHS workers.

Army chef - PA
Army chef - PA

Military figures stressed it was hypocritical to “use public servants who received one of the smallest pay awards and legally can’t strike and have no independent advocate body, to cover for public servants who do”.

One said: "The Government's answer when things get sticky is to use the Armed Forces in non-traditional roles, but when it rolls around to pay reviews it never seems to be reflected."

The standard wage for a soldier at the rank of Private is £21,424, compared with £27,055 for a paramedic with less than two years' experience.

The source cautioned that while it was “unreasonable to say you can’t use soldiers when the country needs them”, future demands must take into account the Army’s size. The force is due to be cut by 10,000 troops.

“If you do want the Army for that, then you’ll need a bigger Army,” said the source.