The Government has confirmed that around 1,200 military personnel will be covering ambulance drivers and Border Force staff over the Christmas holidays. Ambulance staff in England and Wales will be on strike on December 21 and 28, while Border Force staff will be striking for eight days, starting on December 23 and finishing on December 31.
Government ministers have said the military is being used to plug staffing gaps and keep services running.
The NHS has said it has put into place a “tried and tested” plan in order to reduce risk to patients during this time, while the government has confirmed that individual NHS trusts will work with the unions to agree on a safe level of health care cover.
It has also been confirmed the soldiers from the Army, Navy and RAF are to be deployed to cover strikes, with around 600 soldiers covering ambulance drivers, while 150 will provide logistical support.
Community first responders will also be used to help manage medical care demand during the strikes.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, has said his “number one priority” is keeping patients “as safe as possible” during the strikes, and has also repeated that the current union pay demands are “not affordable”.
However, unions have said that soldiers are not “sufficiently trained” to maintain services, and have accused the Government of attempting to “mask” the “effectiveness” of strike action.
Unions have also said the Government plan and money used to cover striking workers could have been “better” invested in securing a deal with those on strike.
Ambulance workers going on strike are being represented by the main three ambulance unions, Unison, GMB and Unite.
Sara Gorton, the Head of Health at the trade union Unison, has warned the military is “no substitute” for qualified ambulance staff.
She said: “The military’s no substitute for trained ambulance staff as the government knows.
“The hours spent on contingency planning could have been better used trying to prevent the strikes from taking place.”
Paul O’Connor, the union’s Head of Bargaining, said that soldiers have “better things to do” than cover for Border staff strikes.
He said: “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.”
Mr O’Connor added: “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.”
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Nathan Holman, representing GMB union, has said bringing in “untrained” soldiers will be more of a “hindrance” than a help.
He said that without specialist training in exceeding speed limits and passing red lights, the military would only be able to respond to “least urgent calls”.
The current ambulance strikes set to take place will affect non-life threatening calls only, however hospitals have been warned to prepare for “extensive disruption” during the walkouts.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of Britain’s army, has said it is “slightly perilous” to expect the military to be used for strike action within the public sector.
Speaking to the Telegraph, he said the use of soldiers for strikes would not affect military operations, but suggested that military personnel should be allowed to get on with their day-to-day jobs.
He said: “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.”