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UK military takes on strike-hit NHS work

By JONATHAN POWELL | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-12-19 09:52

Nurses participate in a protest outside St. Thomas' Hospital in London on Thursday. Up to 100,000 members will walk out at 65 NHS organizations. KIN CHEUNG/AP

Forces personnel to drive ambulances but caution against govt complacency

The United Kingdom will turn to members of its military when ambulance workers go on strike over pay this week.

Britain is bracing for disruption across its National Health Service as nurses in many hospitals and community teams in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland, will also stage walkouts before Christmas.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing, or RCN, are striking again on Tuesday, following action on Thursday, which was the first industrial action by the nurses' union in its 106-year history.

On Wednesday, members of the major workers' unions GMB, Unite, and Unison, which are mostly ambulance staff, will go on strike, and members of GMB will also stage industrial action on Dec 28.

Analysis by The Guardian newspaper noted that concerns about the most serious effects of the strikes focus on ambulance services. Unions have committed to attending life-threatening incidents, but have not yet clarified which emergency calls will be prioritized.

According to government statements, less serious calls will be offered "support", but those requiring an ambulance are likely to face longer waits or may need to use alternative transport.

The RCN has said that hospitals' critical care units, including intensive care, will be "exempt from the strike action", and emergency care in hospitals will continue to be available across all parts of the country, and general practitioner, or GP, services are not impacted.

The head of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, said he was "reasonably confident that we won't see severe patient harm".He noted there would be disruption to planned care, such as non-emergency operations and outpatient appointments, and that patients could generally expect a "bank holiday-level of service" in hospitals.

Arrangements have been made to deploy armed forces personnel to drive ambulances during the emergency workers' strike action, but extensive disruption is still expected. The government said 600 drivers would be drafted, and a further 150 personnel would provide logistical support.

Military personnel have also been drafted in to cover for Border Force staff who will go on strike at eight of the UK's largest airports from Dec 23. Reports say military personnel could also serve as firefighters if members of the Fire Brigades Union were to vote for industrial action.

But the head of Britain's armed forces has warned that the military should not become regarded as support crew for striking workers.

Tony Radakin, the chief of the defense staff, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper that the military can handle the tasks presented, but cautioned that viewing the armed services as "the go-to" would be "an unusual position for us to arrive at".

"We're not spare capacity," he said. "We're busy and we're doing lots of things on behalf of the nation. We've got to focus on our primary role.

"We respond to the government, we serve the nation. We're being asked to do some things. We can take that in our stride."

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