Passengers flying into the UK face months of disruption at the border as passport officers gear up for prolonged strikes, the head of the civil service union has warned.
Border Force officers on Friday began eight days of strikes, while the government warned people to prepare for delays and drafted in the military to help those arriving through immigration during one of the busiest travel periods.
NHS patients also face further difficulties as the Royal College of Nursing became the latest health union to signal an escalation in its campaign of industrial action, announcing two consecutive days of action on January 18 and 19.
Earlier on Friday, health service leaders had breathed a sigh of relief after the GMB union called off a planned strike by its ambulance service members on December 28, saying it did not wish to worry the public over Christmas.
The strike will be held on January 11 instead, coinciding with one of two 24-hour strikes already announced by Unison.
As the first passengers landed at airports on Friday morning Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS union, which includes Border Force staff, warned of months of strikes across the civil service.
“I think that not only could there be six months, I think in January what you’ll see is a huge escalation of this action in the civil service and across the rest of our economy unless the government gets around the negotiating table,” Serwotka told the BBC.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Friday he was “sad and disappointed” at the level of disruption being caused by industrial action.
Sunak said his focus was on making the “right long-term” decisions to the benefit of everyone, adding that inflation posed a “major economic challenge” to the UK.
“When it comes to the difficult question of setting public pay, the government has acted fairly and reasonably in accepting all the recommendations of the public sector pay review bodies,” he said.
The morning rush at London’s Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, passed without major incident with the immigration halls “free-flowing”, the airport said, the first sign that contingency planning could limit the impact of the walkouts.
The strikes by passport officers in the PCS union will hit six airports: London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. The port of Newhaven in East Sussex will also be affected. The industrial action will take place between December 23 and 26 and then between December 28 and 31.
Airport and airline officials are cautiously optimistic that most arriving travellers will not suffer exceptional disruption.
Military personnel will be joined by volunteers from within the civil service at immigration, while airlines flying into Heathrow capped ticket sales to passengers arriving on strike days to keep numbers manageable.
However, John Strickland, an aviation consultant, said Heathrow faced the biggest challenge because it handled so many long-haul flights, which used large aircraft.
The potential problems come as the UK’s Christmas getaway also faces disruption from more train strikes. Rail passengers have been warned to travel only “if absolutely necessary” on Christmas Eve, as the RMT transport union begins another three days of industrial action.
RMT members will also walk out during the first week of January, with services again set to be severely disrupted. A union overtime ban will cause problems for many operators even on non-strike days.
Meanwhile, nurses’ leaders said the new walkouts announced in January, which are limited to England, would affect 25 per cent more hospitals than the stoppages this month.
In Scotland, where RCN members voted “overwhelmingly” to reject the Scottish government’s latest offer of an average 7.5 per cent pay increase, the union will announce strike dates in the new year, the first time the NHS north of the border will have been affected by the current wave of strike action.
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said the government “had the opportunity to end this dispute before Christmas but instead they have chosen to push nursing staff out into the cold again in January”.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that “trouble awaits” the health service as it braced for four days of strike action next month.
The government “cannot just sit back and let these strikes happen when patient care is on the line and the unions must honour their commitment to protect ‘life and ‘limb’”, he added.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Williams in Manchester and Lukanyo Mnyanda in Edinburgh