x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Biggest strike in a generation may bring UK to a standstill

David Cameron, the prime minister, condemns public-sector walkout over pension cuts as the 'height of irresponsibility'.

Police officers walk in front of students from across the UK marching during an anti-cuts protest in London on November 9. The public-sector strike promises to have much more impact on the country.
Police officers walk in front of students from across the UK marching during an anti-cuts protest in London on November 9. The public-sector strike promises to have much more impact on the country.

LONDON // Much of Britain will stutter to a standstill tomorrow when public-sector workers stage the biggest strike the country has seen for more than 30 years.

About two million people were expected to take part in the 24-hour walkout, which threatens to bring chaos to international flights at Heathrow, close most schools and result in 60,000 non-urgent operations and appointments being cancelled at hospitals.

Etihad Airways has already cancelled two flights into, and one from, Heathrow tomorrow while Emirates is advising passengers to arrange to fly on a different day. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, the UK's largest intercontinental carriers, have offered passengers the opportunity to switch flights to a different date free of charge.

Condemned as the "height of irresponsibility" by the prime minister, David Cameron, the strike has been called by the unions over government plans to change the public-sector pensions. Although talks are still going on between the two sides, the unions maintain the changes will result in millions of workers paying more for their pensions, working longer and getting less when they retire.

The government has said the current arrangements are unaffordable with public-sector workers contributing less and getting more generous pensions from the taxpayer than their private sector counterparts.

Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, the unions' national umbrella organisation, said: "This will be the biggest strike for a generation. The government has managed to alienate its entire workforce. Even health-service staff, who are very reluctant to strike, will be leaving their workplaces, although they have ensured proper emergency cover.

"Ministers must take notice of the strength of feeling of its workforce."

Thousands of schools plan to be closed and hundreds of central and local government offices across the country will be affected. The government estimates the strike will cost the country an estimated £500 million (Dh2.9 billion) in lost productivity at a time the economy is struggling to recover from recession.

For airline travellers, the consequences could be dire when immigration and passport control officers walk off the job. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) is expecting to work at no more than 50 per cent capacity, despite civil-service volunteers and consulate staff being brought in to stand in for the strikers.

On Sunday, Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, refused to rule out bringing in the military to man immigration checkpoints at ports and airports. "If that's what is needed - it's not what we'd prefer to do - but if that is needed, I am told the UK Border Agency are looking at all the options," he told Sky News.

BAA, which operates Heathrow airport, has warned of delays at passport control of up to 12 hours, resulting in gridlock and the cancellation of departing flights. Some arrivals might have to be diverted to continental airports.

The looming strike is "another serious kick in the teeth" for the UK business community, a Virgin Atlantic spokesman told Reuters yesterday, adding "Britain cannot afford to be closed for business". "Along with airport operators, wider aviation industry and other airlines, we are in continued discussions with government and UKBA about possible contingencies."

Apart from airports, about 20 per cent of healthcare workers are expected to join the strike along with staff at local councils, courts and even at the Houses of Parliament. The government expects up to 90 per cent of schools to be closed.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, made a last-ditch appeal yesterday to teachers not to join a strike that, he claimed, had been called by union leaders who "wanted" to wreck economic recovery and cause public misery.

"Among those union leaders are people who fight hard for their members and whom I respect," he told reporters in London. "But there are also hardliners - militants itching for a fight.

Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury in the coalition government, told the BBC that it was "very frustrating" that the strike was going ahead when talks were continuing between the two sides on pension reform.

"The fact remains that people in the public sector will continue to get among the very best pension schemes available to anybody," he said.