Parts of the country will effectively grind to a halt on “Walkout Wednesday” as around 200,000 teachers take part in their largest strike for three decades, closing classrooms in 85 per cent of schools.
In total, half a million teachers, university staff, train drivers, Border Force workers, civil servants and security guards are predicted to take part in a coordinated day of industrial action.
NHS patients and nursery children also risk being disproportionately affected as staff, many of them women, are forced to stay home to look after their own school-age pupils, experts have warned.
Most trains in England will not run, queues are predicted at airports and 600 military personnel are being drafted in to support public services.
Downing Street conceded that the level of strike action would make it “very difficult for the public trying to go about their daily lives”.
The walkouts across multiple sectors come as unions step up their campaign for higher pay rises from the government.
They coincide with marches and rallies across the country after the Trades Union Congress called on all workers, not just those in the public sector, to protest in support of the right to strike.
On the eve of the strikes, the largest teaching union the NEU said an extra 40,000 members had joined in the past fortnight. Alongside the 127,000 members who originally voted to strike and others expected to take part, union sources said they expected around 200,000 teachers to walk out.
And Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU, predicted 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales would fully or partially close, while co-leader of the NEU Kevin Courtney told The Independent it would be the largest teaching strike since 1986.
NHS leaders warned that the widespread school closures would prove “challenging” for the health service if staff stayed home to look after their children.
All UK strike dates confirmed for February 2023
Miriam Deakin, director of policy at NHS Providers, said: “Trusts are already dealing with and supporting staff through the most widespread industrial action in the history of the NHS, and so tomorrow’s teachers’ strike leading to widespread school closures could prove challenging for leaders and staff.”
Trusts would be doing “everything they can” to help staff and ensure patients receive safe, high-quality care, she added.
Nurseries could also be forced to turn away young children because of staff shortages, Jonathan Broadbery from the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) warned.
“We know that the vast majority of the workforce in nurseries and early years is female – and if there are problems with children not being able to go to school, research over Covid shows it maybe falls to the working mums rather than working dads to look after the children who can’t go to school,” he said. “So there will be quite a serious knock-on effect to the early years’ workforce if schools do have to close.”
School leaders have also warned of the effect mass school closures would have on pupils.
Benedick Ashmore-Short, CEO of The Park Academies Trust which runs six schools in the South West of England, said while teachers have a right to strike it had to be balanced with “the needs of pupils who have had their education disrupted by the pandemic over the last three years”.
Among the contingency plans for schools that are closing is a return to online lessons, prioritising those sitting exams this year, as well as Covid-style classes for vulnerable children.
In a controversial move, the government has told schools they can use volunteers to stay open, though it is not known how many have chosen to do so.
Teachers are due to strike for seven days between now and mid-March. On Tuesday, Downing Street hit out at the fact that teachers did not have to tell their employers if they plan to strike in advance.
No 10 said it was “disappointing” school leaders did not know how many staff they would have available until the day of action.
By Tuesday night, many schools had yet to declare whether they would be able to open on Wednesday morning.
The action has been prompted by unions who are angry with ministers for awarding school staff an average pay rise of 5.4 per cent. But government sources say many staff will be set for higher increases.
One ex-teacher, who says he will lose £250 by staying home to look after his two children during the strikes, said his former colleagues had “got their audience completely wrong”.
Paul Long, a self-employed education consultant from near Birmingham, said: “This is a school closing because a national union has chosen to take a strike, and it’s having a big financial impact on us for three Wednesdays.”
Downing Street acknowledged that Wednesday’s mass strike action would be “very difficult” for many.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “We know that there will be significant disruption given the scale of the strike action that is taking place tomorrow and that will be very difficult for the public trying to go about their daily lives.
“We are upfront that this will disrupt people’s lives and that’s why we think negotiations rather than picket lines are the right approach.”
Meanwhile, Phil Douglas, director general of Border Force, warned there would be queues at airports on Wednesday because of a strike by those manning passport booths.
He said his organisation had been planning the walkout for months, adding: “Of course, there’s going to be some disruption and some queues.”
Government minister Richard Holden defended the government’s stance to hold firm in the face of pay demands across the striking sectors, saying the cost would be “massive tax rises” or cuts to public services.