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Army called in as UK ambulance workers strike

Members of the military walk next to an ambulance in London on Wednesday, as ambulance workers went on strike in their dispute with the government over pay. (HENRY NICHOLLS / REUTERS)

Thousands of ambulance workers in England and Wales went on strike on Wednesday, in search of a pay rise that competes with the United Kingdom's soaring inflation rate, which stood at 10.7 percent in November.

The strike triggered the deployment of 750 military ambulance personnel, and a declaration that only the most serious calls would be responded to.

Unions responded by saying the government was risking lives by refusing to pay people adequately to prevent an exodus of workers

The industrial action, which involved frontline paramedics as well as backroom staff, was the latest in a slew of walkouts in the UK involving nurses, postal workers, train drivers, and several other groups.

READ MORE: UK hit by worst month for strikes in 11 yrs as pay disputes escalate

The ambulance workers' strike, which involves people represented by the Unison, Unite, and GMB trade unions, prompted the medical director of NHS England, Stephen Powis, to advise people not to party too hard during the festive season, so they will not "get so drunk that you end up with an unnecessary visit to (the accident and emergency department)", because ambulances will not respond.

Stephen Segasby, chief operating officer at North East Ambulance Service, urged people thinking of calling an ambulance to only do so if they think they are going to die.

The UK government, meanwhile, has told ambulance workers and other public-sector employees it cannot afford to raise pay in line with inflation and that the 4.75 percent pay rise offered all National Health Service workers was not only in line with the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body but will not be improved upon.

Steve Barclay, the UK's health minister, was even more combative, writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that unions representing healthcare workers had "taken a conscious choice to inflict harm on patients" in order to fight for better pay.

He later told the BBC the health system was "already facing very significant pressure" because of a spike in COVID-19 admissions and a rise in influenza cases and that "it is the trade unions who are taking this action at a point of maximum pressure for the NHS".

Unions responded by saying the government was risking lives by refusing to pay people adequately to prevent an exodus of workers, and a resulting build-up of pressure on services.

READ MORE: British nurses walk out again, threaten further strikes in pay dispute

Sharon Graham, head of the Unite union, said on Radio 4's Today program that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must now directly intervene in talks with trade unions.

"This lies squarely at the door of the government," she said, while adding that the prime minister's apparent intransigence amounts to the worst "abdication of leadership" she has seen in "25 years of negotiating".

Sunak, meanwhile, told lawmakers in the UK Parliament his solution to the wave of inflation-induced strikes will be to bring the cost of living back down to where it should be, so big pay rises are unnecessary.