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Rishi Sunak pledges ‘new tough laws’ as UK border staff announce strike

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Rishi Sunak is working on “new tough laws” to limit the impact of strikes, as Border Force staff prepared to join a wave of industrial action set to cause major travel disruption across the UK over Christmas.

The prime minister told the House of Commons on Wednesday that if “union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public”.

Sunak’s pledge came as air travellers in the UK learned they faced the prospect of long queues and possible flight cancellations this Christmas after the PCS union said Border Force staff would strike at six UK airports, including London Heathrow and Gatwick.

The walkout is part of a wave of industrial action set to hit the UK during December. On Wednesday rail operators warned passengers to expect some disruption in England and Wales every day between December 13 and January 8, as unions launch major strikes.

The action at six airports will take place between December 23 and 26 and then again between December 28 and December 31. It will primarily involve immigration officials who are responsible for checking incoming passengers’ passports.

Airport executives said the level of disruption would depend on whether the Home Office is able to deploy back-up staff and army personnel to replace striking immigration officers.

A Home Office source warned the walkouts would be “seriously disruptive”.

“People should be under no illusions that if they can in any way avoid taking a flight on these dates, then that’s what they should be doing. The military simply cannot cover everything we need to maintain normal levels of service.”

Manchester airport said it expected some flights to be cancelled, but Gatwick pledged to operate its normal schedule.

Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, said it expected immigration and customs checks to take longer during peak times on strike days.

About 10,000 flights are scheduled to land at the six airports on the strike days, according to aviation data company Cirium.

“The Border Force strike essentially tells the world that Britain’s airports are closed for entry at one of the busiest times of the year,” said travel industry consultant Paul Charles.

Sunak’s tougher stance came as some ministers and Conservative backbenchers questioned why he had not already taken action. Successive Tory prime ministers have vowed to introduce tougher laws on strikes but not delivered them.

Downing Street said that “given the level of disruption, it is right to look at going further than minimum service levels on transport” but declined to say when any new legislation might be ready. “We want to do it at speed,” Sunak’s spokesperson added.

More than 1mn working days will be lost to strike action in December — the worst disruption in any month since July 1989 — based on unions’ current plans for action by postal and rail workers, NHS staff and civil servants.

Former cabinet ministers have told the Financial Times that even the limited legislation to guarantee minimum services during strikes on the railways had been held up because of fears it would inflame the current dispute.

“The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty. With inflation running at 11 per cent, Rishi Sunak wants to make it harder for working people to win better pay and conditions,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

Transport secretary Mark Harper told the transport select committee on Wednesday he could not say when the minimum service legislation would move to a second reading.

Members of the RMT, the largest railway union which is locked in disputes with both infrastructure owner Network Rail and 14 train operating companies, are set to walk out in strikes that are expected to shut down large parts of the network for most of next week.

The rail industry has told passengers to only travel if necessary on December 13, 14 and 16, 17.

The union has urged its members to reject what it called a “poor” pay offer of a 9 per cent pay rise over two years from Network Rail, and is still holding out for a new deal with train operators after turning down an 8 per cent offer.

Meanwhile, health secretary Steve Barclay on Wednesday said that agreeing to the demands of trade unions representing NHS staff, including nurses, would hurt the health service’s ability to build new diagnostic centres and reduce waiting lists.

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