Travel chiefs warn of ‘summer of discontent’ as 1 million passports at risk from five-week strike
More than 1 million passport applications could be stuck in a bottleneck when Passport Office workers go on strike for five weeks as experts warn of a “summer of discontent”.
Holidaymakers have been urged to check their passport expiry dates to avoid being caught in the disruption which last year saw families miss holidays due to significant backlogs in processing.
In a “significant escalation” of a dispute over jobs, pay and conditions, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said more than 1,000 members will walk out at all seven offices in England, Wales and Scotland from 3 April to 5 May - an estimated 65 per cent of the workforce. An eighth office in Belfast is likely to join the strike later.
The union says the walkout will have a “significant impact” on the delivery of passports as the summer approaches. At peak times – including April – the Passport Office can receive 250,000 applications per week.
Union sources told The Independent that passport offices were already seeing a surge in applications after the strikes were announced, with queues forming outside some buildings today across England, including London.
Downing Street said ministers would work to “mitigate” the impact of strikes by Passport Office staff, but said there are no plans to change guidance that people should allow 10 weeks to get a passport.
Government sources claimed there was currently no backlog in passport applications and that more than 97 per cent of passports were processed within three weeks.
But travel and tourism industry insiders say the strike action will have a disastrous effect on the UK economy due to a loss of sales and deals caused by disruption.
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “The Passport Office strikes will have devastating consequences for business travel and the UK economy.
“These strikes will impact businesses across the UK resulting in loss of sales and deals which will cause further damage to the industry and economy which has so far observed a bounce back.”
Mr Wratten urged the government to reach an agreement with the PCS to save more than 1 million applications another “summer of discontent”.
Heathrow, the UK’s biggest airport, also faces the prospect of strike action over Easter. A ballot of more than 3,000 security guards, engineers and firefighters will close later today, union Unite said. The union said many members are unable to make ends meet.
Any strike action “will inevitably cause severe disruption throughout Heathrow with delays, disruption and cancellations of flights inevitable”, Unite regional coordinating officer Wayne King said.
Jo Rhodes, deputy editor of Which? Travel, said the passport strikes will be a “huge concern” for hundreds of thousands of travellers who need to renew their travel documents.
“Anyone due to travel this summer should check their passport's expiry date carefully, as well as the number of months’ validity required by their destination. If you do need to renew your passport, apply as early as possible – while current processing times are up to 10 weeks, this could rise,” she said.
Ms Rhodes added that travel insurance would be unlikely to cover a trip which was cancelled due to an invalid passport.
Kevin Pratt, travel insurance expert at Forbes Advisor, said the news of fresh strike action will send people waiting for passports “flying into a panic”.
“We’re heading into busy times for the travel sector, and passport applications and renewals are no exception. The strike has clearly been called to put maximum pressure on the employers.
“The strike won’t close passport offices completely but it will introduce delays into the process, and these could linger into the summer,” he said.
He also cautioned Britons to start checking their documents if they have plans of travelling overseas this year.
Michael Riegel, general manager of corporate travel and expenses app Navan Europe, told The Independent that people planning summer holidays and workers travelling for business will be equally disrupted by the strike next month.
“The impact will be enormous to the travel industry – and also British business productivity. The number one reason for business travel is to connect teams – which is now potentially at risk for thousands,” Mr Riegel said.
The PCS is seeking a 10 per cent pay increase as well as assurances over pensions, redundancy and job security.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said government ministers have failed to hold “meaningful talks” with the union and have refused to improve an earlier 2 per cent pay raise.
“They [the government] seem to think if they ignore our members, they’ll go away. But how can our members ignore the cost of living crisis when 40,000 civil servants are using foodbanks and 45,000 of them are claiming the benefits they administer themselves?” Mr Serwotka said.
“It’s a national scandal and a stain on this government’s reputation that so many of its own workforce are living in poverty.”
The announcement comes as the government and education unions agreed to hold “intensive talks” on the issues which have sparked a series of strikes by teachers in recent months. This follows the breakthrough in the NHS dispute on Thursday, with leaders of nurses, ambulance crews and other health workers agreeing to suspend further industrial action while ballots are held on a new pay offer.
Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said the strike action will be a “kick in the teeth” for thousands of Britons.
“The blunt truth is the Passport Office has been a mess for years after ministers took their eye off the ball. Families have had holidays cancelled and business travellers have been stranded after endless delays,” Mr Carmichael said.
Downing Street said ministers would work to “mitigate” the impact of strikes by Passport Office staff.
“The Home Office will work hard to manage the impact of this strike action to ensure they can still provide the vital service to the British public as you would expect ahead of ahead of the summer where we fully acknowledge that many people will want to get away and enjoy the summer with their family,” a spokesperson said.