UK strikes and crumbling health service add trouble for Prime Minister Sunak

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British rail workers will walk off the job much of this week, paralyzing transport and adding to the troubles piling up for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government.

Union workers will strike for five days starting Tuesday, snarling the usual return to work following the holidays and interrupting January sales that are crucial for retailers.

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The protests stem from growing anger over the tightest cost-of-living squeeze in memory.

Inflation reached a four-decade high last year, and wages aren’t keeping pace, especially in public services.

Nurses and ambulance drivers plan to strike later in the month as officials warn the National Health Service is struggling to cope with flu and COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I accept it’s tough at the moment,” Transport Secretary Mark Harper said in a Sky News interview on Tuesday, reacting to the difficulties in the NHS and the ongoing industrial action. “The health service is under pressure.”

Sunak’s response has been to hold the line against what he sees as inflation-busting pay rises.

He’s blaming surging prices on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which cut off supplies of energy and wheat, boosting the cost of electricity and food. His New Year’s message warned of tough times ahead.

“I am not going to pretend that all our problems will go away in the new year,” Sunak said in the video message posted to Twitter on Saturday. “Just as we recovered from an unprecedented global pandemic, Russia launched a barbaric and illegal invasion across Ukraine.”

The Tories must call a general election by January 2025 at the latest, and the Bank of England anticipates the economy is already in recession and unlikely to grow until early 2024.

That downturn has been exacerbated by Britain’s exit from the European Union, which slashed trade links and left the UK the only economy in the Group of Seven nations that has yet to regain the size it had before the pandemic.

A Financial Times survey of 101 economists published Monday showed most expect the UK to have the worst and longest recession of any G-7 country. Those quoted by the newspaper described the year ahead as “tough,” “bleak,” “grim” and “miserable.”

Government ministers, taking a page out of Margaret Thatcher’s strategy on industrial relations when she was prime minister in the 1980s, have maintained a confrontational stance with unions, threatening to lengthen the strikes.

The strikes and a disastrous budget that shocked markets in September have eaten into the ruling Conservative Party’s reputation with voters for handling the economy.

The Conservatives, in power for more than 12 years, trail the Labor opposition in polls. People Polling had the Conservatives 26 points behind in a survey for GB News released on December 30.

Phil Banfield, chair of British Medical Association council, gave a stark warning about the scale of the crisis in the NHS.

“The current situation in the NHS is intolerable and unsustainable, both for our patients and the hard-working staff desperately trying to keep up with incredibly high levels of demand,” Banfield told the Press Association. The government’s “silence is deafening.”

Wes Streeting, the Labor lawmaker who serves as shadow health secretary, said the government isn’t talking to NHS workers about their concerns on pay and conditions.

It’s “completely inexplicable as to why, given the front pages today, given what we’ve seen throughout Christmas and the new year, not a single government minister — whether it’s the prime minister, the health secretary — has raised their head or shown their face to say exactly what they are doing to grip this crisis,” he said.

But Education Minister Robert Halfon told the BBC that the NHS is “a top priority for Sunak.”

The Royal College of Nursing said that members will strike on January 18 and 19, following two days of historic industrial action in December. It’s the first time strikes have taken place on such a wide scale since the union was founded over a century ago.

Ambulance drivers will halt work on January 11.

Rail disruption will intensify on Tuesday.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers will stage a walkout on January 3, 4, 6 and 7. The Aslef Union, which represents train drivers, said members will strike on January 5.

Harper said the RMT should get “off the picket line and round the negotiating table.”

“There is a very fair pay offer on the table which has been accepted by two of the trade unions on Network Rail,” Harper said on Times Radio.

But RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said there’s an “unprecedented level of ministerial interference blocking a settlement with rail workers.” Aslef General Secretary Mick Whelan said the union was “in it for the long haul.”

“We don’t want to go on strike, but the companies have pushed us into this place,” Whelan told the Press Association. “They have not offered our members a penny and these are people who have not had an increase since April 2019.”

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