Ministers will be “straining every sinew” to minimise the disruption of a wave of winter strikes – but “cannot eliminate” the risks, a Cabinet minister has said after an emergency Cobra meeting.
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden reiterated pleas for workers including nurses, paramedics and train staff to call off action to “give families a break”.
But he admitted contingency plans to use the military to help fill in the gaps, including at the borders, will not be enough to “remove all risks”.
Mr Dowden chaired the meeting of the Government’s emergency response committee, with military figures in attendance, as pressure on ministers to resolve the action grows.
He told the broadcasters: “Of course this Government will be straining every sinew to make sure that we minimise those risks, but we cannot eliminate them.
“The fair and reasonable thing for the unions to do particularly in a time when winter is biting, we’re suffering from the consequences of Ukraine and indeed the Covid situation, to call off those strikes, give families a break particularly over winter time.”
Mr Dowden added: “My message to them, even now, is please call them off.”
Mr Barclay was meeting with RCN chief executive Pat Cullen three days before the first nurses’ walkout on Thursday, before another is set for Tuesday.
Downing Street indicated he was not willing to discuss pay, as the union demands a pay rise of 5% above the RPI rate of inflation, which was 14.2% in October.
However, it was understood the topic and status of the talks were not set before the meeting, which came after Ms Cullen said the Government’s door was “firmly shut” to her.
Unite and Unison members called off action after negotiations with Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and the intervention of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The new deal would mean NHS workers in Scotland would remain the best paid in the UK, and workers would get pay rises ranging from £2,205 to £2,751.
For the lowest paid it would be a rise of 11.3%, with an average rise of 7.5%.
Mr Barclay however has been sticking with the independent pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 raise.
A wave of strikes by nurses, paramedics, rail workers and Border Force staff this month is expected to cause mass disruption, with thousands of NHS operations and appointments cancelled
The military and civil servants are likely to be brought in to cover Border Force staff, while armed forces will also be deployed to hospital trusts ahead of an ambulance worker strike on December 21.
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, accused Mr Barclay of “spoiling for a fight”.
He said: “They want to blame nurses, blame paramedics, blame NHS staff for challenges in the National Health Service which are the direct fault and responsibility of 12 years of Conservative mismanagement – frankly, I think it’s disgusting.”