(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he’ll pass “tough laws” to protect the British public from the disruption caused by “unreasonable” trade union leaders as emergency service workers prepare for a series of strikes in the run-up to Christmas.
As many as 100,000 nursing staff are planning industrial action on Dec. 15 and 20 affecting about a quarter of England’s hospitals and community services, while ambulance staff, paramedics and call handlers have also voted to strike, with a walkout expected on Dec. 21. They’re protesting over pay and conditions as inflation soars. But Sunak told Parliament on Wednesday that that the government has been “reasonable” in its dealings with the disaffected workforce.
The government has “accepted the recommendations of an independent pay review body, giving pay rises in many cases higher than the private sector,” Sunak told the House of Commons. “But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public.”
Sunak’s government faces a wave of winter strikes, with teachers, railway workers and postal staff adding to health service employees in planning action. That’s left the country facing walkouts every day until Christmas as unions demand pay deals that keep pace with double-digit inflation.
Earlier Wednesday, Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the government won’t improve a pay offer to publicly-funded National Health Service staff in England, telling BBC radio that demands by the nursing union for a pay rise of 5% above the RPI inflation rate — currently at 14.2% — are unaffordable. If the pay of all public sector workers is raised in line with inflation it would cost £28 billion ($34 billion), he said.
Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi has said the military may be called in to help ease any disruption caused by public-sector strikes, though Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain told reporters on Wednesday that no request has been submitted for them to help out with the ambulance workers’ planned walkout.
Facing Strikes, UK Rejects Nurse, Ambulance Drivers Pay Demands
Alongside the Transport Strikes Minimum Service Levels Bill — first promised in 2019 — and currently stalled in Parliament, Sunak is also developing other measures.
“I have been working for new tough laws to protect people from this disruption,” he told the Commons. His press secretary told reporters that “I can’t rule anything in or out” when asked if the government is looking at a ban on strikes in the emergency services. No timetable has been set for the plans.
“The government should negotiate with nurses and stop these cheap and divisive political games,” The Royal College of Nursing union’s General Secretary Pat Cullen, said in an e-mail. “For the first time in their working lives my members are saying enough is enough.”
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