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No ‘immediate plans’ for Army to plug gaps in NHS to ease sting of strikes

Business Secretary Grant Shapps (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Business Secretary Grant Shapps (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A Cabinet minister has insisted there are no “immediate plans” for the Army to step in to help the NHS during a potential winter of strikes, but conceded it is not “unusual” to “game these things out”.

Health and defence officials are drawing up a contingency strategy as ambulance drivers and paramedics consider joining nurses on the picket lines in the coming months.

It had been reported that this could involve armed forces personnel stepping in to plug gaps in frontline services.

But Business Secretary Grant Shapps said it was not “correct” to say the military will be brought in, other than to note the Government “always looks at contingency plans”.

“There aren’t any immediate plans to do that,” he told Sky News.

“And actually the NHS has got some pretty well-versed planning in place for all manner of disruption.

“Of course, ideally, I’d love to see those strikes averted. I don’t think anyone wants to see strikes in our NHS. It harms everybody and is to no one’s advantage.”

He later told LBC: “The NHS always gets ready for any potential disruption, so it’s not unusual to game these things out. There’s no plan at the moment to call in the Army as that story describes.”

It was suggested the Government could utilise the military aid to the civil authorities protocol (Maca) to keep key services in the NHS running during major walkouts.

Maca was used during the coronavirus pandemic to help struggling health staff with vaccines, testing and the delivery of protective equipment.

No formal request for help has been made by the Department of Health and Social Care to the Ministry of Defence.

A Government spokeswoman said: “We are working with the NHS on a range of options to manage disruption to health and care services during industrial action.

“Hospitals will do everything they can to ensure patients and the public are kept safe, however planned appointments may need to be cancelled and emergency care prioritised to those in need of urgent care only.”

The prospect of strikes being called off ahead of Christmas appears bleak, as Transport Secretary Mark Harper has said public sector pay rises in line with soaring inflation are “unaffordable”.

The Cabinet minister said on Sunday there “simply isn’t the money” to meet the demands of workers preparing to take industrial action, but hinted at progress in talks over rail strikes.

During a round of broadcast interviews on Monday morning, Mr Shapps echoed his colleague’s sentiment on salaries.

Asked if he agreed with Mr Harper that the Government cannot afford inflation-busting pay rises, he told Sky News: “Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen how this works before.

“You have to go back several decades, but high inflation, if you then feed the high inflation and high settlements, you end up in a spiral where it never ends and that’s what happened in the 1970s.

“We’re very determined not to be in that situation now. It won’t benefit anybody.”

Mr Shapps said the unions should stop “grandstanding” and get their disputes “settled”.

Nurses are set to stage their first UK-wide strike action next month, as they join transport and postal workers on the picket lines in disputes over pay and conditions.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will walk out on December 15 and 20 if the dispute is not resolved.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has urged the nursing union to “come back to the table” for talks but he is declining to discuss pay, instead wanting to talk about conditions such as pension arrangements, holidays, rosters and the availability of free coffee.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen wrote to Mr Barclay telling him it is “negotiations or nothing”.

Professor Juergen Maier, vice-chairman of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, warned there will be “utter chaos” in transport if an agreement is not reached over rail strikes soon.