The British government is looking into bringing in the military to mitigate industrial action and keep public services running, the chairman of the governing Conservative Party said Sunday, after a wave of strikes that were sparked by a cost-of-living crisis and an economy sliding into recession.
The action includes border control and state-run healthcare services, if key workers including nurses and ambulance drivers go on strike.
“Our message to the unions is to say, this is not a time to strike, this is time to try and negotiate. But in the absence of that, it’s important for the government, it’s the right and responsible thing to do to have contingency plans in place,” Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News Sunday.
“We’re looking at the military, we’re looking at a specialist response force […] to be able to deal with in the unfortunate circumstance if you do have a strike of border force,” Zahawi added.
“Of course, in things like driving ambulances, other parts of the public sector, we’ve got to try and minimize disruption,” said Zahawi, in response to a question about strikes affecting the UK’s National Health Service.
Zahawi pointed the finger at Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as the reason for the recent strike action, saying the economic struggles were a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine driving up energy costs. He urged unions to drop their demands and “come together” to send a clear message to Putin that he can’t “use energy as a weapon.”
The claim was dismissed by the Royal College of Nursing secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen, who insisted the war cannot be used as an excuse for slashing pay for nurses. “Using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK is a new low for this Government.
“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute,” she said.
Meanwhile Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Nadhim Zahawi’s allegation that Britain’s nurses, ambulance drivers and teachers are allies of Vladimir Putin is as ridiculous as it is disgraceful.”
Strikes have swept the UK this year, as workers grapple with a worsening cost-of-living crisis and an economy that is sliding into a recession. CNN Business previously reported that wages have stagnated and failed to keep pace with inflation, now at a 41-year high, setting the stage for clashes between employers and employees.
Those clashes have already caused widespread disruption, including to train travel, and are now spreading to even more sectors, such as education, healthcare and security.
More than 70,000 university workers went on strike over pay, working conditions and pensions on Thursday, November 24, and Friday, November 25 at 150 universities across the United Kingdom.
The strike was the biggest in the history of British higher education, affecting over 2.5 million students, according to the University and College Union, which organized the strike.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 356,000 days were lost to strike action in August, not far off the previous high recorded in July 2014, when 386,000 days were lost. That number dipped to 205,000 in September.
The disruption has continued during autumn, with several public service unions set to carry out strike action or ballot their members over pay. Ambulance staff and nurses in the NHS are due to go on strike this month while junior doctors will vote on whether to take industrial action.
RMT, Britain’s largest transport union, announced in November there would be four 48-hour strikes in December and January.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents striking postal workers, announced additional walkouts on December 9, 11, 14, 15, 23 and 24, which could jeopardize Christmas deliveries.
CNN’s Hanna Ziady contributed to this report.