Europe

Soldiers forced to give up their Christmas to cover striking staff

Firefighter says FBU strike action is a 'last resort'

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Around 600 servicemen and women will provide cover for members of the PCS union who have voted for industrial action.

Some 100 troops have arrived at Gatwick and Heathrow, where they will remain until after the end of the strikes in the New Year.

PCS members who work for Border Force at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports will walk out from December 23 to 26 and 28 to 31.

The soldiers are being trained how to check passports and spot instances of modern slavery. They could also be deployed to process migrants who illegally cross the English Channel.

A Border Force source warned: “Our border security is going to be catastrophically weakened.”

Phil Douglas, director-general of Border Force, has written to airlines, asking them to cancel up to 30 percent of flights on strike days to prevent chaos at airports.

But last night easyJet said it plans to operate its full schedule during the strike days. The Luton-based airline said: “We are in talks with the individual airports on their contingency plans.”

It is allowing customers who have booked flights arriving at Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow on the strike days to change their travel date or have a flight voucher for the value of their ticket if they want to amend their plans.

Hundreds of soldiers will also be sent to drive ambulances and provide logistical support in an effort to limit the impact of co-ordinated strikes on the NHS.

The Ministry of Defence is on the verge of agreeing to a request from the Department of Health for support under the military aid to civil authorities protocol, known as Maca.

And last night a source told the Daily Express “it is possible” troops could also be deployed to drive fire engines. Firefighters will be balloted next week over strike action.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said that relying on the Armed Forces to fill the gaps left by strikes would place a “huge burden” on the military.

For some of the soldiers drafted in to help at airports, Christmas was one of the last opportunities to see their families before they go on six-month foreign deployments. Members of the Armed Forces are not allowed to strike by law.

Rishi Sunak visited RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire yesterday and said Britain owes the Armed Forces “an enormous debt of gratitude”.

He added: “I had the opportunity to say thank you to some of our Armed Forces personnel because many of them are going to miss Christmas to help us deal with the disruption from strikes, whether that’s manning border posts or driving ambulances, and we all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.”

He said the Government is looking at “tough new laws”on strikes as well as contingency plans.

Royal Mail workers were on strike yesterday, with hundreds gathering in Parliament Square to hear speeches by union leaders. More than 115,000 staff walked out, with more action to follow in the run-up to Christmas.

Talks between the CWU union and Royal Mail have broken down. Members of the union are expected to continue striking on Sunday as well as on December 14, 15, 23 and 24.

Last week, Royal Mail advised people to post Christmas mail earlier than usual due to the walkouts.

Meanwhile, the leader of the biggest rail workers union has called for an urgent meeting with Mr Sunak in a bid to help resolve the long-running dispute over pay, jobs and conditions.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union are due to stage two 48-hour strikes next week following months of industrial action.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has written to Mr Sunak saying a meeting between the two was now the best prospect for progress.

“We have a duty to explore every option for settling this dispute and I’m willing to do my part. I hope you will agree to meet me,” he wrote.

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