Up to half a million workers will go on strike on Wednesday with thousands of schools shut, rail lines closed down and significant border disruption, as unions said negotiations on ending strikes were “going backwards”.
Ministers have been accused of “hoodwinking the public” and freezing any moves towards a settlement with NHS workers and rail unions. Government sources privately conceded that optimism at the beginning of the month about bringing an end to strike action had faded.
The coordinated series of strikes involves teachers, civil servants, Border Force staff and train drivers, with the government telling people to brace for “significant disruption”.
Thousands of schools in England and Wales will be closed, or partly closed, when up to 200,000 members of the National Education Union (NEU) take strike action in pursuit of a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise. Schools in Fife and Orkney in Scotland will also be on strike on Wednesday, as part of rolling regional action by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union.
The NEU has predicted that 85% of schools will be affected, with one survey suggesting that up to one in seven schools will be closed to all pupils, rising to a quarter in London.
The full scale of the disruption will not be known until the start of the school day, as striking teachers are not required to tell their schools in advance, putting parents under pressure to make alternative arrangements. The prime minister’s official spokesperson said the lack of information was “disappointing”.
Most trains in England will not run, with action affecting the 14 biggest operators, and there is expected to be escalated disruption at airports and queues in immigration halls because of strikes by PCS staff.
More than 100,000 civil servants are also due to strike from more than 100 departments and public bodies, including the Cabinet Office, the health, transport, education and business departments, and the British Museum, Electoral Commission, UK Space Agency and Land Registry.
No new talks are planned between any ministers and unions, though the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, met four education unions earlier this week.
There is particular anger among NHS workers – who are not on strike until next week – that government briefings that pay talks were under consideration as long as efficiencies were found have come to nothing.
One senior health union source said the government had “stonewalled” all offers of subsequent meetings. Sunak’s spokesperson said of future talks that he was “not aware of any currently being planned”.
Talks to avert strike action collapsed on Monday, and although the NEU said it was keen to reopen negotiations to avert strikes planned for later in February and March, there seems little hope of a breakthrough, with the Treasury in effect blocking progress.
Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said: “This is a government that does not understand the role of unions. It does not understand that at the end of the day they will have to negotiate. At the moment they are not coming forward with an offer.
“We have 27 days until the next day of strike action. We are committed to use that time to negotiate a resolution to this dispute. We ask the government to show the same commitment.”
The train drivers’ union said efforts to settle the pay dispute had now completely stalled before the strike on Wednesday that will bring much of Britain’s railways to a halt.
Simon Weller, assistant general secretary of Aslef, said drivers were further away than ever from a resolution. He told the Guardian: “Unfortunately things have gone backwards by some measure.”
Weller blamed the breakdown in talks on an initial offer that the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, immediately released last month to the press before the union could see it. “That broke all the confidence we had with the negotiating process, the protocols … and the problem is they painted themselves into the corner.”
He said that the offer and strings attached meant it was “designed to fail”. As well as angering union leaders, the move had backfired as drivers were infuriated by the details of the deal, he said. “We did a webinar last week with 1,000 members … The questions were: when are we going to up the ante? They are really angry,” he said.
Passengers have been told to check before travel, with no trains running at all on most intercity and urban commuter routes, as the Aslef union starts the first of two days of strikes this week. A further 24-hour stoppage will take place on Friday.
Of 14 operators in England, only South Western Railway will attempt to run a normal service, while Greater Anglia, LNER and GWR will run a skeleton service.
About 600 military personnel are expected to be deployed on Wednesday to mitigate the effects of the strikes, most of them on border duties.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “We know that there will be significant disruption given the scale of the strike action that is taking place tomorrow and that will be very difficult for the public trying to go about their daily lives.”
A senior government source said the prime minister had made it clear that unions should call off strikes before serious negotiations could take place, though an exception had been made for the NEU on Monday, but said officials were working constantly to find a resolution.
For health and education unions, the source said it was clear that the current demands were unaffordable without major spending cuts or tax rises. On the NHS strikes next week, the source said: “We have signalled we are willing to talk about pay but there has to be a landing zone. We do not know what that looks like for the unions and we cannot start from the premise of 10% rise across the board.” Health unions have said they have received no indication of what the government’s own offer might look like.
The director general of Border Force, Phil Douglas, told an airport operators’ conference in London that the strikes could have more impact than those in December, when the army was deployed and queue times diminished only slightly.
This time, Douglas said: “It’s everybody out – all PCS members are full out on strike tomorrow.” He said that “without doubt” there would be further strikes by Border Force, with the PCS mandate lasting until May: “I would expect them to use it.”
Border Force staff working in Dover, Calais, Dunkirk and on the EuroTunnel entrance in France will strike during half-term, the PCS union announced on Tuesday night.
In the first industrial action at seaports during the current dispute, the action is expected to affect more than 1,000 officers on 17, 18, 19 and 20 February.
The action will be the first during the current dispute to affect UK ports and could cause chaos during school holidays. The port strikes will not affect those Border Force officers working with new arrivals by small boats at Western Jet Foil and Manston processing centres.
NHS strikes are expected to escalate next week, taking place every day except Wednesday, and will include ambulance staff, nurses and physiotherapists.
Unions were further angered by the NHS pay review body chair, Philippa Hird, disclosing that the Department of Health and Social Care had yet to submit evidence before the next pay round beginning in April, nearly three weeks after the deadline.
Unison, the largest health union, said it will announce strike dates running into March, which are likely to affect double the number of health trusts and include the whole of England’s ambulance service.
The union’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said ministers were “fobbing off the public” by pretending they were working towards the settlement. “There are no pay talks, and the prime minister must stop trying to hoodwink the public,” she said.
“The government’s tactics seem to be to dig in, wait months for the pay review body report and hope the dispute goes away. It won’t.”
Royal College of Nursing, GMB and Unite members will go on strike next Monday, followed by a second day of action from the RCN on Tuesday. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy will strike on Thursday 9 February, and 15,000 Unison ambulance staff will take action across five ambulance services in England the next day.
The Institute for Government published a report showing civil service turnover is at its highest level in a decade. It said morale was down for the first time since 2015, and only 41% of those surveyed said their organisation was motivating them to achieve their objectives, down from 51% the previous year.
Additional reporting by Rowena Mason