The head of Britain’s armed forces has warned the government his personnel are not ‘spare capacity’ to use during strikes as fears grow over soldiers driving ambulances in this week’s 999 walk-outs.
With industrial action likely for months, Adm Sir Tony Radakin also said it would be ‘perilous’ to rely on troops – and could hamper the Army’s other work.
Around 600 personnel – including those from the Army, Navy and RAF – will drive vehicles, and another 150 will give ‘logistical support’ as 10,000 ambulance staff in England and Wales strike on Wednesday.
But the figures represent just 7.5 per cent of the striking workers – and they will not be providing medical care during call-outs. The Welsh government confirmed that it would not use the military to drive ambulances.
Adm Radakin said he had been really careful to not get drawn into a row but insisted: ‘We’re not spare capacity. We’re busy and we’re doing lots of things on behalf of the nation. 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 told The Sunday Telegraph.
Troops are also expected to be drafted in on Wednesday next week as a second ambulance strike is held – the latest in a wave of industrial action.
A further 450 troops plus 1,000 civil servants will be called up to work in Border Force roles, such as passport control at airports, during a strike by the Public and Commercial Services Union for eight days from this Friday until New Year’s Eve.
The Royal College of Nursing – whose members walked out on Thursday – has pledged a wave of more severe strikes in January if there is no movement from ministers in the next 48 hours. They have been offered a 4.5 per cent rise but want inflation – currently 10.7 per cent – plus five per cent.
The RMT holds another rail strike on Christmas Eve and prime minister Rishi Sunak yesterday attacked its leader Mick Lynch. Calling deals offered ‘fair and affordable to taxpayers’ he wrote in The Sun On Sunday: ‘An increasing number of union members want a deal.
‘They are tired of being foot soldiers in Mick Lynch’s class war.’ The RMT hit back: ‘The Tories have had months to resolve this dispute. Even now, they would rather play the man, not the ball.’
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden told the BBC: ‘I would urge the unions to call off those strikes and to give the military a break this Christmas.’
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, warned the military was no substitute for qualified ambulance staff.
And Nathan Holman, from GMB, said, without specialist training in exceeding speed limits and passing red lights, they would only be able to respond to the ‘least urgent calls’.
Labour shadow home office minister Stephen Kinnock said: ‘It’s a mess of the government’s own making. It shouldn’t be happening but of course the army will do a great job in terms of coming in and providing that sticking plaster solution.’
Concerns have also been raised about military morale amid complaints at their own poor pay and conditions. Soldiers cannot strike by law and the starting salary of a private is £21,424.
Adm Radakin said: ‘We get directed by the government and, therefore, avoid those political debates.’ And he insisted: ‘We’re miles off an impact on operational effectiveness.’
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