Rishi Sunak has said the government is unable to shift its position on pay, effectively implying the only way for strikes across the railway and other sectors would be for unions to back down.
In comments to his cabinet on the first day of four weeks of disruption to train services, the prime minister said: “While the government will do all we can to minimise disruption, the only way we can stop it completely is by unions going back around the table and calling off these strikes.”
Rail bosses and unions also signalled they would not budge in the pay dispute, withe the general secretary of the RMT, Mick Lynch, saying there was “no deal in sight”.
The latest wave of strikes across the network by 40,000 members of the RMT union left passengers facing severely reduced services, with three more strike days to follow this week.
The winter would be “a challenging period to get through”, an official readout of Sunak’s comments to his ministers said. The PM said the government had been “fair and reasonable” in agreeing independent recommendations for public sector pay rises, “and in facilitating further discussions with the unions and employers”.
His official spokesperson said there were plans to mitigate any disruption, but it was “for unions to decide whether they want to keep inflicting this sort of damage on the public”.
The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said people faced another Covid-style “virtual Christmas” as a result of the industrial action, with an overtime ban at train operators also affecting passenger services through the rest of month until the strikes in early January.
Lynch said the union would press ahead with strikes, and “review at the end of that if there’s no settlement on the table and we’ll decide what our next steps are, but at the moment there is no settlement to be had.”
The strikes by RMT members at Network Rail and 14 train operators, which began on Tuesday morning, left about a fifth of normal train services running around the country. Trains will continue to run between 7.30am and 6.30pm on strike days with a reduced service on main intercity and urban lines, with no trains at all in much of rural England, Scotland and Wales.
Network Rail urged passengers to seek alternative travel or to plan ahead and check with operators for the latest information on services. Disruption should also be expected in the morning of the day after each strike.
Harper did not deny that the government had intervened to scupper a possible deal between the RMT and train operators. Speaking on BBC’s Today programme, he declined to answer questions on whether the government had insisted on adding controversial driver-only operation clauses, but replied: “Reform has been on the table all the way through this process.”
The RMT’s membership also voted to reject an improved offer from Network Rail in a referendum, whose result on Monday confirmed strikes would go ahead. Network Rail said the deal, of 9% over two years with staff travel benefits and a guarantee on jobs until 2025, was their “best and final offer”. The union leaders opposed the offer because of significant changes to working practices.
About 64% of members voted against the offer on an 83% turnout. Harper saw the lower vote, compared with the overwhelming RMT votes in favour of strike action, as a sign that “the tide is turning on people seeing that the offers we have made are reasonable”.
Another union, Unite, voted to accept the offer from Network Rail. A third union, TSSA, has suspended industrial action while it ballots its members.
Lynch said Unite had only 100 members in Network Rail, while the RMT had 21,000 workers on strike on Tuesday, and the Unite members “are not affected by the major changes the company wants to bring in because they work in a different part of the company”.
“We understand the modernising agenda,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, but added that “we want an agreement, rather than an imposition”.
Lynch said the changes Network Rail wanted to impose would cut 50% of the maintenance regime on the railway; change workers’ work-life balance, forcing them to work more nights, more weekends and more consecutive weekends; and alter job descriptions and many contracts of employment. He told BBC Breakfast: “I’m optimistic that we can get a deal but we need the government to facilitate a deal. At the moment they are deliberately obstructing that deal.”
The Network Rail chief executive, Andrew Haines, struck a pessimistic note. “Where I stand today, I’d have to say that with the level of disruption the RMT are imposing, the way forward isn’t obvious,” he said.
The RMT national strikes will take place on 13-13 and 16-17 December, while the overtime ban across 14 train operating companies will affect services from 18 December until 2 January, before more strikes on 3-4 and 6-7 January. A Network Rail strike from 6pm on 24 December to 7am on 27 December will bring passenger trains to an earlier end on Christmas Eve, but mainly affect engineering works.
The Office for National Statistics said 417,000 working days were lost to labour disputes in October, the highest number since November 2011. Nurses prepare to go on strike on Thursday, as the Royal College of Nursing general secretary, Pat Cullen, said staff were “not getting an extra penny” despite talks on Monday.