The true impact of strikes in Britain revealed — £6bn and counting

Rishi Sunak’s government has been warned about the crippling impact of ongoing industrial unrest across Britain, as new analysis shows recent strikes have caused a £6bn hit to the UK economy.

The damage is not limited to the economy, with schools set for huge disruption and NHS patients facing more delays after unions announced nursing and teaching strikes for February and March.

The government is also facing industrial action – or the threat of more walkouts – from ambulance staff, train drivers, postal workers, firefighters, Border Force officials, Job Centre staff and other civil servants.

Unions bosses have also told The Independent about the push for more “coordinated” action in the weeks ahead – warning that they will not back down in increasingly bitter disputes with ministers on pay and conditions.

The economic cost of the industrial unrest seen since the summer amounts to at least £6.6bn, according to The Independent’s analysis of estimates by industry chiefs and economists.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) puts the direct hit to businesses’ output from lost working days at £1.4bn in the eight months to January.

In additional knock-on impacts, the rail strikes have cost bars, pubs, restaurants and hotels at least £2.5bn in lost trade since the summer, according to UKHospitality. Network Rail said the strikes had also cost £400m in lost ticket revenue.

The Centre for Retail Research also estimated that the cost of rail and postal strikes to UK retailers will be just over £2.3bn for the Christmas period and January sales.

“We are teetering on the edge of recession and any sort of downward pressure from strikes has an unwelcome impact on the economy,” said CEBR economist Karl Thompson.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said the industry was still struggling with the “collateral damage” from the ongoing rail dispute. Urging ministers and unions to hammer out a deal, she said the losses were “simply unsustainable”.

The latest official figures show 467,000 working days were lost to strikes in November – bringing the current wave of industrial unrest to a 30-year high not seen since the last days of the Margaret Thatcher government.

More than 1.6 million working days were lost to strikes in 2022, the ONS said on Tuesday – the highest annual number since 1990, when 1.9 million work days were lost.

It comes as parents facing the prospect of taking time off work to look after their children, as ministers draw up plans with headteachers to keep as many schools as possible during seven days of strikes from 1 February.

Some schools are planning to bring back online learning and the government hopes some academy trusts can pool their resources – raising the prospect of some pupils being transported to different premises. “The knock-on impacts in terms of parents missing work to look after their children will magnify any costs from strikes,” said Mr Thompson.

Students are also set to miss out on teaching. More than 70,000 university staff will walk out for 18 days during February and March, the University and College Union announced earlier this month.

Disruption in the NHS is also set to escalate. Nurses will walk out again on 18 and 19 January, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has announced even larger strikes for 6 and 7 February. The GMB is also considering more action among ambulance staff because of the lack of progress in talks with health secretary Steve Barclay.

Union leaders have played down talk of a “general strike” – in which industrial action would be coordinated across multiple sectors. But teachers, train drivers and civil servants will all walk out on a “day of action” on 1 February.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union is expecting a “significant” escalation in synchronised strikes from March if the government remained unwilling to negotiate on improve pay deals for the current year.

“Unions will work much more closely together,” leader Mark Serwotka told The Independent. His own union has arranged its largest-ever strike during the “day of action“ on 1 February, which will see 100,000 civil servants walk out across scores of government agencies.

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