Six hundred military personnel from all three armed forces will start training to drive ambulances to cover for striking NHS workers later this month. A further 150 are being readied to act as logistical support, defence sources said, with training for both groups to start “shortly”.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said on Monday: “These individuals are going to be extremely helpful in mitigating some of that disruption. But nonetheless, it will have an impact … We do think this will cause significant disruption.”
He added: “Paramedics going on strike will reduce significantly the number of people that are able to respond to those calls.”
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, will meet the Royal College of Nursing on Monday evening as he looks for a last-minute deal to avert a nurses’ strike this week. No 10 insisted beforehand that he would not discuss pay with the union’s bosses.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “Outside of pay, which we think is for an independent review body to decide, there are non-pay options to discuss with the unions. For example, there are issues affecting nurses’ morale.”
The NHS and UK Border Force have asked the military to help keep services running, but government officials said soldiers would not be able to provide all the functions of the striking workers. Train staff are among other workers due to strike.
Military personnel who provide backup for ambulance workers would be restricted by the rules of the road, the Department of Health and Social Care said. They would be able to use blue lights and drive ambulances but must not run through red lights.
Public service unions and employers remain deadlocked as two weeks of rolling strikes begin in the run-up to Christmas. Ministers were due to hold an emergency meeting on Monday as officials say strikes over the next few weeks are likely to cause significant disruption even if the army is called up to help.
The Conservative MP Damian Green has called the action a “quasi-general strike”. Downing Street declined to use the same language, but a spokesperson said: “It certainly is concerning to hear talk of coordinated actions, it only seeks to exacerbate the misery it inflicts upon the public.”
Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary, said the action could be called off “right now, this very minute” if Barclay agreed to talks on pay. “Our door is absolutely wide open and it appears at the minute that theirs is totally shut,” she told ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme.
She said the RCN would be willing to meet the government through the dispute resolution service Acas if ministers did not want to speak to the union directly.
The nurses’ union said it welcomed renewed talks with Barclay. “We have replied positively to his email and we will attend in the hope the government is now serious about negotiating,” a spokesperson said.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said on Monday he believed the nurses’ pay demands were “probably more than can be afforded”, though he accused the government of a “profound lack of leadership”.