Sunak warns of ‘challenging’ winter of strikes, high costs and NHS backlogs

Soaring inflation, strikes and spiralling NHS waiting lists will cause a “challenging” winter, Rishi Sunak has warned, as the UK was forecast to suffer a deeper recession than allies.

The Prime Minister braced his Cabinet on Tuesday for misery in the coming months as they discussed how to alleviate the crises.

With nurses voting to strike, Health Secretary Steve Barclay warned the NHS backlog had already been “significantly exacerbated” by the pandemic.

Downing Street said 400,000 people were currently waiting more than 52 weeks for operations, compared with 1,600 before Covid-19 hit.

Labour accused Rishi Sunak of “taking people for fools” if he tries to blame winter rather than a “decade of Tory mismanagement” for the nation’s challenges.

Food prices and energy bills have soared as inflation hit a 41-year-high of 11.1%, with global fuel prices being forced up by Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The British economy will then contract more than any of the world’s seven most advanced nations in the G7, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Giving an account of the Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Looking ahead to winter, the Prime Minister said this would be a challenging period for the country caused by the aftershocks of the global pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.”

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden discussed some of the work “to mitigate some of the challenges expected this winter, including further strike action”.

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(PA Graphics)

Asked whether the PM was concerned about inflation, strikes and medical appointments, the official spokesman said: “You’ve highlighted some of the issues the public will face and those are some of the areas the Government are trying to mitigate.”

Downing Street said the potential for power blackouts was not discussed but insisted ministers are “preparing for all eventualities”.

“We do have quite a diverse energy provision. Offshore wind continues to provide a huge amount of our energy, particularly during the winter months,” the spokesman said.

“While we are preparing for all eventualities, we are confident that we will continue to have good provision throughout the winter months.”

It came as National Grid’s energy systems arm issued a warning that electricity supply might be tight on Britain on Tuesday evening. However, within half an hour the company had cancelled the warning.

The grid issues these warnings several times a year when the difference between the supply of electricity and demand for it is expected to be small.

However, these warnings are often dropped rapidly and “don’t mean that electricity supply is at risk,” National Grid says on its website.

The RMT rail union is to stage a series of 48-hour strikes in December and January in the long-running dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.

More than 40,000 union members across Network Rail and 14 train operating companies will strike on December 13, 14, 16 and 17 and on January 3, 4, 6 and 7.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “These strikes are stopping hardworking people from getting to work.

“They’re stopping people from reaching vital things like doctor’s appointments, they’re stopping children, young people – who have already had their education disrupted – from going to school or college.

“It’s not what the public should be facing at this time. We want to encourage union leaders to work with employers to get an agreement that balances fairness both for workers but equally for taxpayers and passengers.”

The head of the FDA union representing senior civil servants warned that action is needed “to avoid a crisis”, as civil servants are preparing to join rail workers and nurses in taking action over issues including pay.

Dave Penman tweeted that he had had a “constructive meeting” with new minister for the Cabinet Office Jeremy Quinn, in which “pay dominated the discussion, including why the civil service is treated the worst in the public sector and action needed to avoid a crisis.”

The OECD’s latest forecasts suggest the UK economy will shrink by 0.4% in 2023 and grow by just 0.2% in 2024.

Germany is the only other G7 country set to see a contraction in gross domestic product – the measure of national income known as GDP – next year, with a 0.3% drop.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “The blame for the winter challenges the British people face lies squarely at the door of a Tory Government that shows no sign of being capable of cleaning up the mess they caused, let alone taking any responsibility.

“Rishi Sunak is taking people for fools if he think he’ll get away with pinning the blame elsewhere.”