The UK is expected to experience the worst disruption to services in decades as more than 2 million public sector workers stage a nationwide strike, closing schools and bringing councils and hospitals to a virtual standstill.
The strike by more than 30 unions over cuts to public sector pensionsstarted at midnight, leading to the closure of most state schools; cancellation of refuse collections; the postponement of thousands of non-emergency hospital operations; and the prospect of delays at airports and ferry terminals.
The TUC said it was the biggest stoppage in more than 30 years and was comparable to the last mass strike by 1.5 million workers in 1979. Hundreds of marches and rallies are due to take place in cities and towns across the country.
The day of action takes place the day after the chancellor, George Osborne, fuelled anger by announcing a fresh wave of pay restraint for public sector workers to help fund economic growth plans and signalling plans to end national pay bargaining within two years.
Osborne denied he was picking a fight with public sector workers.
“I’m not picking a fight with anyone,” he told BBC Breakfast. “I’m trying to deal with this country’s debts that were racked up in the good years and, unfortunately, now we are in the difficult years, we are having to pay them off.” Osborne warned that the strike over pensions would not “achieve or change” anything, and would serve only to make Britain’s economy weaker.
He reiterated the government’s position that the pension offer on the table was “a very generous deal”.
“The strike is not going to achieve anything; it’s not going to change anything. It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs,” he said.
“So let’s get back round the negotiating table. Let’s get a pension deal that is fair to the public sector, that gives decent pensions for many, many decades to come but which this county can also afford and our taxpayers can afford. That is what we should be doing today, not seeing these strikes.”
Pickets began to form before dawn at many hospitals, ports and colleges, at Whitehall departments and outside the gates of the House of Commons, which means cabinet ministers going into work will come face to face with staff angered by the pension changes.
The TUC said the strike would also include tens of thousands of border agency staff, probation officers, radiographers, librarians, job centre staff, courts staff, social workers, refuse collectors, midwives, road sweepers, cleaners, school meals staff, paramedics, tax inspectors, customs officers, passport office staff, police civilian staff, driving test examiners, patent officers, and health and safety inspectors.
Francis Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office, appealed to public sector workers to go to work as normal as he gave an update of the expected level of disruption to services.
Maude said the government expected around three-quarters of schools in England to be closed or partially closed during the day of union action. Council services such as refuse collection, street cleaning and libraries were also likely to be affected, he said, and passengers “may face longer than normal waiting times at airports and ports”.
But he said “robust contingency plans” were in place. “Overnight the borders have been managed without any major problems, and are currently operating normally. There have already been several seizures this morning: for example, 1.5kg of cocaine seized at Stansted.”
Health services will also be affected, and some organisations have had to reschedule elective surgery and outpatients’ appointments so that urgent cases can be prioritised. But emergency and critical care serviceswould be “operating normally” and 999 calls would be responded to as usual, the minister added.
“Responsibility for any disruption which people may experience today lies squarely with union leaders,” he said.
Unions and employers have struck local deals to avoid disruption to emergency operations and to continue essential medical services at hospitals, mental health units and residential care units for children. Emergency rotas have been introduced by mental health social workers, with union agreement.
In Scotland an estimated 300,000 public sector workers are expected to strike, with every school due to be affected after Scottish headteachers voted to stop work for the first time.
The UK Border Agency is braced for severe queues at major airports after learning that staffing levels at passport desks will be “severely below” 50% despite a successful appeal for security-cleared civil servants to volunteer.
“We will have the bare minimum to run a bare minimum service,” said a Whitehall insider. Many major public buildings and sites, including every port, most colleges, libraries, the Scottish parliament, major accident and emergency hospitals, ports and the Metro urban light railway around Newcastle and Sunderland will be picketed.
At Holyrood, Scottish government ministers and MSPs in the ruling SNP, the Liberal Democrats and Tories are expected to cross picket lines to stage a debate on public pensions; Labour and Scottish Green party MSPs will join the protesters.
Here are some of the actions across the country:
• In London up to 2,000 schools will be shut or affected, and ambulance crews will strike, there will be pickets in Whitehall, at universities, hospitals and a TUC regional march through the city from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to the embankment.
• In Scotland union leaders including Rodney Bickerstaff, general secretary of Unison, will march through central Edinburgh to a mass rally outside the Scottish parliament, with protests at Edinburgh castle, a major march and rally attended by Scottish union leaders in Glasgow, where civil servants will picket MoD and tax offices. There will be marches and protests in Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen.
• In southern and south-west England and Wales unions will hold marches and rallies in towns and cities including Brighton, Southampton, Bristol and Exeter, while a New Orleans-style marching band will lead a march through Cardiff.
• In the north-west up to 25 Cumbrian schools may open, the Mersey tunnel is expected to be closed, while in Liverpool protesters will be urged to sound car horns, blow vuvuzela horns, clap and shout at 1pm in an action dubbed “One Noise at One”.
• In the Midlands union general secretaries including the TUC leader Brendam Barber and Dave Prentis of Unison will lead a rally at the Birmingham Indoor Arena, while marches will be held in Nottingham.
• In the north-east of England, Metro services will be severely hit and the RMT rail union leader Bob Crow will address a rally.
• In northern England marches are due to be staged in Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield.
• In Northern Ireland there will be no train or public bus services, Belfast’s passport office will be closed along with leisure centres and schools. The main march will be through central Belfast.
The Prospect union has exempted staff from strike action who work in 100 essential defence posts, including intelligence analyst posts at British bases in Afghanistan and civil servants supplying frontline troops.
Steve Jary, the national secretary of Prospect, which represents thousands of MoD staff, said: “These people are not the Whitehall bureaucrats of popular imagination. It is ironic that this important work by staff who risk their own lives in supporting the UK’s armed forces only comes to light in a situation like the industrial action.”
Dean Royles, the director of the NHS Employers organisation, which represents NHS trusts in England and Wales, said the unions had agreed to protect emergency services but he warned patients they might still experience significant delays that could spill over into Thursday.
“The absolute priority of everyone in the NHS must be to ensure that patients are safe and we avoid unnecessary distress too patients,” he said. “We believe robust plans will be in place for the people who need urgent care but those needing non-urgent care may experiences delays.”
The Local Government Association, which represents English and Welsh councils, said it was “working tirelessly” to minimise disruption to essential services, and to protect services for the elderly, vulnerable and young. Social workers were operating emergency rotas, children’s residential centres were being staffed as fully as possible and service updates would be posted on council websites.