Plans for military staff to cover for striking workers are to be discussed at a Cobra meeting, amid warnings that over-stretched troops are being used repeatedly to bail out ministers unable to solve disputes.
With about 1,000 personnel due to miss Christmas breaks as they fill in for ambulance crews and border staff, military sources and retired senior officers warned about the potential impact on morale for troops whose real-terms pay has also declined.
Ministers from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will take part in a pair of scheduled meetings of the government’s Cobra emergencies planning committee, billed as a chance to finalise contingencies to cope with an upcoming wave of public sector strikes.
Nurses are set to become the latest to stage a walkout on Thursday, after the government refused an offer by unions to pause the action if ministers agreed to talks over a possible pay deal.
James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, said on Sunday that while the health secretary, Steve Barclay, would talk to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Unison union, he would not discuss any deviation from a pay award decided over the summer by the official NHS pay review body.
Thousands of ambulance workers and other NHS staff across England and Wales are also due to strike on 21 December over pay, while Border Force staff at airports and ports will strike from 23 December to Boxing Day, and from 28 December to New Year’s Eve. Rail workers are also scheduled to hold more strikes over Christmas, as are Royal Mail staff.
The first Cobra meeting, on Monday, will be headed by Oliver Dowden, who as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster is the most senior minister in the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of planning for the strikes.
As well as the MoD, ministers from the Department for Transport, Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office will take part, with a second meeting planned for Wednesday.
The 1,000 military personnel will be joined by the same number of civil servants and volunteers in being trained to carry out duties such as checking people at borders and staffing ambulances, with 600 of the troops filling in for Border Force workers.
While one government source argued that such numbers were standard for “military aid to civilian authorities” (Maca) arrangements, some in the military have started to question the amount of assistance being sought, with soldiers missing what could be their third Christmas in a row, after the military were called into help with the Covid crisis and other deployments.
“Maca used to be last resort. Now it’s the go-to. Bad government planning equals soldiers missing Xmas,” said one military source, reflecting what they said were repeated grumblings they had heard from junior ranks.
Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, warned over the weekend that soldiers being forced to miss Christmas with families could damage morale and see some quit.
“Soldiers might decide they’ve had enough of bailing the government out of the muddles it gets itself into,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “They might think: ‘I joined to be a soldier, not a strike-breaker.’”
Labour has reiterated its request to the MoD to spell out how many personnel in total are being used for Maca duties, and warned that the extent of such duties could affect national security.
“Our armed forces are there to defend our nation, but are having to bail out Conservative ministers who are grinding our country to a halt,” said John Healey, the shadow defence secretary.
“Troops will perform these tasks with total professionalism, but extra domestic demands raise real concerns while ministers continue to cut the size of the British army and the UK faces growing threats.”
In quotes released to announce the Cobra meetings, Dowden stressed the government’s line that the public should blame unions for any problems.
“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,” he said.
But in response to the offer from the RCN and Unison, Cleverly said it was impossible for ministers to amend awards decided by the independent pay body, even though these are only advisory, are based on parameters set by ministers, and have been ignored in the past.
“The point is, meetings are different from pay negotiations,” Cleverly told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show. “Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason, to take the politics out of this kind of stuff. And we respect the judgment they have made, and we’re implementing it.”
Labour’s Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said ministers were seeking to blame a crisis in the NHS this winter on striking staff, rather than seeking a solution.
“They’re quite happy to see paramedics and nurses go on strike because when the proverbial hits the fan this winter, they are going to blame nurses and paramedics for an NHS crisis which is squarely the fault of a Conservative government,” Streeting said.
“I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s reprehensible. I think it’s irresponsible.”
Sir Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England, also said the service was working with unions to ensure patients remain safe on strike days.
“We are working hard to make sure patients are safe, emergency services will be maintained, so if you have a life-threatening condition then please continue to call 999 and if non life-threatening condition then 111 should be your dockyard of call,” he said.