August 7, 2020

Britons Strike as Government Extends Austerity Measures

Courts, schools, hospitals, airports and government offices could all be hit by the strike, which has come to be seen as an emblem of resistance to government plans to squeeze public-sector pensions and cut government spending to reduce debt.

Education authorities across Britain said thousands of schools had closed because teachers were on strike, and many parents had taken a day off from work to look after children.

The stoppage was billed as the most extensive in decades, mirroring the turmoil in the debt-plagued euro zone across the English Channel and offering a reminder of the potential social and political impact of the financial crisis seizing much of Europe. While Britain is not part of the single European currency, it is a member of the European Union and relies on the continent for much of its trade.

The chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said on Tuesday that because of the slowdown in the euro zone, British economic growth this year and next would be slower than forecast in March and “debt will not fall as fast as we’d hoped.”

He added that Britain could avoid a recession next year only if the euro zone found a solution to its crisis.

“We’ll do whatever we can to protect Britain from this debt storm,” Mr. Osborne told a packed Parliament. “If the rest of Europe heads into a recession, it may be hard to avoid one here in the U.K.”

News reports on Wednesday spoke of picket lines being set up outside public buildings while workers planned rallies and demonstrations across Britain. Some of the first workers to strike were in Liverpool, where tunnels under the River Mersey were closed. But the overall level of participation remained unclear.

Some routes into London, normally clogged with commuter traffic and cars ferrying children to school, were virtually deserted as the strike began.

Medical officials said up to 60,000 nonurgent hospital procedures — from surgery to outpatient visits — were postponed because of the strike. But airport operators said that two Britain’s two biggest airports — Heathrow and Gatwick near London — were functioning with relatively little delay because many border service personnel had not joined the strike and were being assisted by other government officials to inspect the passports of arriving passengers.

The airports had been an early focus of worries that travelers could be delayed by up to 12 hours.

Immigration queues are currently at normal levels,” BAA, the leading airport operator, said. In addition to drafting in support staff, the operator had also asked airlines to restrict the number of passengers booked on flights.

“However, there still remains a possibility for delays for arriving passengers later in the day,” BAA said.

The company operating Eurostar, the high-speed train using the Channel tunnel, had urged passengers to be prepared for delays. But, by midmorning, a Eurostar spokeswoman said, “everything is fine, with no delays or cancellations.”

At the weekly parliamentary session devoted to questions to the prime minister, the strike provoked fierce exchanges between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband, who accused the government of secretly welcoming the walkout.

“I don’t want to see any strikes,” Mr. Cameron said. “I don’t want to see our schools closed. I don’t want to see problems on our borders.”

He called the strike “something of a damp squib,” but acknowledged that it had forced the closure of 60 percent of British schools. He also said that “less than a third” of civil service employees were on strike.

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