Government to hold Cobra meeting amid widespread strikes
Plans for military staff and civil servants to cover for striking workers in the coming weeks will be discussed at a Cobra meeting on Monday.
The country is set to be hit by a wave of strikes over the coming weeks as Royal Mail staff, nurses, paramedics, rail employees and Border Force officials all stage walkouts over jobs, pay and conditions.
Military personnel and civil servants are being trained in case they are required to be drafted in at ports and airports, as border staff prepare to strike for eight days from December 23 to New Year’s Eve.
Armed forces members will also be deployed to hospital trusts across the country to prepare to man vehicles ahead of an ambulance strike scheduled for December 21, with a significant number of military staff now expected to miss Christmas breaks.
The meeting of Cobra (civil contingencies committee) on Monday will be led by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden and attended by transport, health, home office and defence ministers.
Another meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, as the Government aims to avoid scenes of widespread disruption.
Mr Dowden urged the unions to call off the “damaging” strikes.
“The stance the unions have taken will cause disruption for millions of hardworking people over the coming weeks.
“The Government will do all it can to mitigate the impact of this action, but the only way to stop the disruption completely is for union bosses to get back round the table and call off these damaging strikes.”
The Government has said it was working with Network Rail and freight companies to prevent delays and to ensure coal, steel and waste are prioritised during the latest set of strikes.
It follows a weekend that saw clashes between the Government and trade union officials, with Transport Secretary Mark Harper writing in The Telegraph that some families could face a “virtual Christmas” once again due to rail strikes over the festive season.
On Sunday, the Government rejected a last-minute offer from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to “press pause” on strike plans this week if the Health Secretary entered negotiations on pay.
As things stand, thousands of RCN members are due to take part in unprecedented strike action on December 15 and December 20 with the trade union’s general secretary warning that the Government is playing a “dangerous game”.
“The Government is looking desperate and appears to be misleading the public,” Pat Cullen said.
“The Foreign Secretary is completely wrong to say this is a matter for the NHS and not ministers. The Government makes the decisions on pay for NHS staff. They must correct the record and start being honest.
“My offer of negotiations has not been accepted today – the Government is playing a dangerous game.
Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton echoed that message.
“The wage rise given to health workers this year simply hasn’t been enough to stop staff leaving in droves. Without enough employees in the NHS, patients will go on waiting too long for ambulances and for treatment to start,” she said.
“Instead of putting plans in place for the strike days, ministers should be concentrating all their efforts on ending the disputes.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly ruled out talks on pay between Steve Barclay and nursing unions, as he said that the Government had followed independent recommendations on pay.
“Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason – it is to take the politics out of this sort of stuff,” he said.
But one senior Tory MP called it a “good day for the RCN”.
Steve Brine, chairman of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, told Channel 4 News: “To use a painful analogy, they’ve converted the spot kick and it’s 1-0 today, because they’ve really put the ball back in the Government’s court.”
Another MP, former Cabinet minister Damien Green, said that some unions appeared to be seeking a “quasi-general strike”.