Army ‘must NOT be used as spare capacity to cover for striking workers’
The head of the Armed forces has delivered a warning to Rishi Sunak that it must not be treated as ‘spare capacity’ to cover for striking workers.
As ministers prepare to deploy 1,200 troops to help with ambulances and guard borders, the Chief of the Defence Staff swiped that the military is ‘busy’ and should not be the ‘go-to’ to fill gaps.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said the forces need to focus on their ‘primary role’, and cannot be the ‘ultimate backstop’ for industrial unrest.
The pointed comments came as unions claimed the military are not ‘sufficiently trained’ to plug staffing gaps on the front line.
Mr Sunak has so far stood firm in the face of ‘unaffordable’ demands, including nurses calling for a 19 per cent pay rise, despite increasing signs of Tory alarm at the fallout.
NHS leaders have warned There is ‘no question’ strikes will pose ‘risks’ to patients.
Unions claimed the military are not ‘sufficiently trained’ to plug staffing gaps on the front line (file picture of ambulances)
Along with 1,200 personnel from the Army, Navy and RAF, more than 1,000 civil servants are being brought in to prop up crucial services.
Ministers are preparing to deploy 1,200 troops to help with ambulances and guard borders
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said the Armed Forces need to focus on their ‘primary role’, and cannot be the ‘ultimate backstop’ for industrial unrest
While he made clear the military can take the extra responsibility ‘in our stride’, Sir Tony said viewing the forces as ‘the go-to’ would be ‘an unusual position for us to arrive at’.
‘We’re not spare capacity. We’re busy and we’re doing lots of things on behalf of the nation,’ he told The Sunday Telegraph.
‘We’ve got to focus on our primary role.
‘It would be slightly perilous to rely on defence to be doing all of these things as the ultimate backstop.’
He declined to be drawn on ‘political debates’, as he stressed the military are directed by the Government and ‘serve the nation’.
Ministers have insisted their chief concern is public safety, but the Government has been accused of using troops to ‘mask’ the ‘effectiveness’ of industrial action.
Unions insist the Armed Forces should not be put in an ‘invidious’ position when they already have ‘enough on their plate’.
Ambulance crews in England are due to walk out for two days on December 21 and 28 in a row over pay, while border staff in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) will strike for eight days from December 23 until New Year’s Eve.
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, said it is ‘really important’ the unions recognise that a commitment to ‘protect life and limb’ stretches beyond cover for a ‘dire emergency’ such as a traffic accident or heart attack.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘We’re in the middle of winter and we have a health service which, even on an ordinary day without industrial action, is finding it difficult to cope.
‘So there are going to be risks to patients. There’s no question about that.
‘And that’s why the leaders that I represent are calling on both the Government and the trade unions to try to find a way through.’
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said his ‘number one priority’ is keeping patients ‘as safe as possible’ as he reiterated the Government’s position that union demands are ‘not affordable’.
Writing in the Sun on Sunday, Mr Sunak did not specifically mention NHS strikes, which appear to have stronger public support, instead focusing on disruption to the transport network.
Lashing out at RMT chief Mick Lynch he said: ‘Labour backs the Grinches that want to steal Christmas for their own political ends. We are doing everything we can to ensure people get the Christmas they deserve.
‘The Army is stepping up and we’re putting in place other measures to keep services running where possible.
‘I hope those thinking about striking come back to the table. As I showed during Covid, the priorities of the British people are my priorities.
‘I will do what is necessary to protect the public. The unions need to do the same and return to negotiations.’
The troops drafted in to cover for striking workers include 600 ambulance drivers, plus a further 150 providing logistical support.
Community first responders will also be used to help manage demand for medical care.
Meanwhile, military personnel will join civil servants filling in for striking Border Force staff.
They will help ‘minimise disruption for passengers’ by checking documents and passports.
The NHS will enact ‘tried and tested’ plans to mitigate risks to patient safety and manage disruption, the Government said, while trusts will work with unions to agree on a safe level of cover.
The Cabinet Office is also set to publish a new ‘resilience framework’ on Monday, bringing together all levels of government, as well as the private sector, charities and the public to ‘bolster’ the UK’s preparedness for industrial action.
Unite, which is co-ordinating the ambulance strikes with GMB and Unison, accused ministers of ‘hollowing out’ the NHS, maintaining those taking industrial action are in fact ‘trying to save the service’.
GMB and Unison said those in power had opted to ‘dig in their heels’ on pay with the health service ‘already on its knees’, making disruption appear ‘inevitable’.
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, also warned the military is ‘no substitute’ for qualified ambulance staff, while Nathan Holman, from GMB, said bringing in ‘untrained’ personnel would be a ‘hindrance’ rather than a help.
Without specialist training in exceeding speed limits and passing through red lights, Mr Holman said the military would only be able to respond to the ‘least urgent calls’.
Ms Gorton said the promise of a Government rethink on NHS pay ‘could have put the brakes on action’, but ministers ‘chose instead to dig in their heels’.
‘The military’s no substitute for trained ambulance staff as the Government knows,’ she said.
‘The hours spent on contingency planning could have been better used trying to prevent the strikes from taking place.’
Fears over insufficient training were echoed by the PCS, which accused Home Secretary Suella Braverman of ‘scrambling around’ to get ‘anyone she can’ to cover for border staff.
Paul O’Connor, the union’s head of bargaining, said the military have ‘better things to do’ than passport control.
‘They are not sufficiently trained to carry out this role and they shouldn’t be put in this invidious position when they should be enjoying the festive break with their families,’ he said.
Rishi Sunak has so far stood firm in the face of ‘unaffordable’ demands, including nurses calling for a 19 per cent pay rise, despite increasing signs of Tory alarm at the fallout
‘The same applies to civil servants who are being pulled in from elsewhere, also leaving their jobs uncovered.
‘Instead of throwing good money after bad trying to desperately mask the effectiveness of our industrial action, the Government should put a serious offer on the table to deal with the cost-of-living crisis that they have created for their own workforce.
‘That is the only way to resolve this dispute.’
Mr Barclay said: ‘NHS staff do an incredible job and it is deeply regrettable some union members are going ahead with further strike action.
‘My number one priority is to keep patients as safe as possible and we are stepping up preparations across government and the NHS, including making best use of the armed forces, volunteers and freeing up capacity to mitigate disruption and ensure safe staffing levels.
‘People who need emergency and life-threatening care should continue to come forward as normal, or use NHS 111 online for urgent advice.
‘I have listened to unions and am open to further discussions but their demands are not affordable in the economic circumstances.’