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UK strikes: Soldiers training to drive ambulances as ministers hold emergency strike meetings

Ambulance workers are set to strike, raising concerns among the public about their ability to respond in an emergency, but their union has stated that the government has the authority to halt their strike.

As the government holds emergency COBRA meetings to limit disruption while ten different industries go on strike this week, troops are being trained to drive ambulances.

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Over the weekend, government sources stated that no decision had been made to submit a formal request to the Ministry of Defence, but that one was “not far away.”

But the Cabinet Office confirmed on Sunday night military personnel are being deployed to NHS hospital trusts across the UK to “familiarise themselves with vehicles” ahead of ambulance strikes planned for 21 and 28 December.

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There will be 750 military personnel deployed, with 600 driving ambulances and 150 in support roles to cover 10,000 ambulance workers going on strike.

Two emergency COBRA meetings will also be held this week as ministers step up plans to limit disruption caused by industrial action, which is set to take place every day until the end of the year.

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Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden will lead a meeting with his department on Monday to help “protect the public” against a lack of service caused by the strikes.

Starting from Monday, 10 sectors are set to strike this week: rail, the NHS, the Eurostar, buses, National Highways, baggage handlers, Royal Mail, nurses, driving examiners and civil servants.

The Cabinet Office said the government’s priority is to protect “those who may need access to emergency services support and limit disruption as much as possible, particularly at a time when increased numbers of people will be travelling for the festive period and NHS services are under huge pressure due to the impact of COVID”.

A second COBRA meeting will take place on Wednesday.

They will be attended by ministers from the Department for Transport, Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.

Oliver Dowden walks outside Number 10 Downing Street
Image:Oliver Dowden will chair two emergency COBRA meetings on strikes this week

The Cabinet Office said the government has been planning to limit disruption since unions first proposed the December strikes last month.

Mr Dowden said: “We regret the stance unions have taken as it will only serve to disrupt the lives of millions of people up and down the country at what is an important time for them and their families.


“We urge union bosses to call off these damaging strikes and to keep talking.

“But it is right that each department across government plans for disruption and put in place the appropriate contingency measures to limit it as much as possible over the coming weeks.”

On Friday, Sky News reported military personnel had started training at Heathrow and Gatwick airports to check passports as Border Control staff are set to go on strike over Christmas.

A total of 600 military personnel are being deployed to help and around 1,400 civil servants are volunteering.

NHS workers who are Unison members in Northern Ireland will kick off this week’s strikes.

Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who are members of the Royal College of Nursing, will go on strike for the first time ever on Thursday and again on 20 December.

Union bosses have said the strikes could still be called off if the government sits down and tries to resolve all the different disagreements over pay and conditions.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News on Sunday unions should negotiate with the independent pay review bodies, not with ministers.

RMT rail union leader Mick Lynch requested an urgent meeting with Rishi Sunak.

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “The government has played its part by facilitating a fair and decent offer and the RMT and its members should vote this deal through and end this harmful disruption.”

Unison said the government has the power to halt the strikes by making an effort to “put a proper pay plan on the table”.

“Instead of putting plans in place for the strike days, ministers should be concentrating all their efforts on ending the disputes,” Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said.

“Speaking to unions about improving wages can work wonders as the Scottish government has found. It’s time ministers in Westminster did the same. They should stop talking tough, put a proper pay plan on the table and get the unions in to discuss it.”


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