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Nurses and ambulance drivers are helping Vladimir Putin in his assault on Ukraine by demanding big pay rises, a cabinet minister has said, triggering widespread ridicule.

Nadhim Zahawi switched tack in the battle to avert pre-Christmas NHS strikes by claiming they would expose a “divided” UK when a united front is needed over Russia’s “illegal war”.

“This is a time to come together and to send a very clear message to Mr Putin that we’re not going to be divided in this way,” the Tory party chair said.

Mr Zahawi added, on the nurses’ strikes: “They should reflect on this because that is exactly what Putin wants to see – that division. Let’s not divide, let’s come together.”

The comments were condemned by union leaders, including the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, who said: “Using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK is a new low for this government.

“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute.”

Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said: “Another multi-millionaire government minister has chosen to attack ordinary workers whose only crime has been to refuse to take a pay cut.

“Nadhim Zahawi’s allegation that Britain’s nurses, ambulance drivers and teachers are allies of Vladimir Putin is as ridiculous as it is disgraceful.”

The RCN is planning to strike on 15 and 20 December. Only five areas of care will be protected: chemotherapy, critical care, dialysis, pediatric intensive care and neonatal.

Mr Zahawi said the military is being trained to drive ambulances if necessary, as well as to staff border posts in a worsening winter of discontent.

“I think people need to remember that Putin is using energy as a weapon because he’s failing so badly in his illegal war on Ukraine,” he told Sky News – blaming it for high inflation.

He warned that chasing higher pay would “embed inflation for longer and hurt the most vulnerable, adding: “Our message to the unions is to say, ‘this is not a time to strike, this is time to try and negotiate’.”

The government’s offer to health service workers is capped at 3 per cent, following the recommendations of the independent NHS pay review body.

Union leaders say an improved pay offer similar to that made in Scotland could help break the deadlock, accusing the health secretary Steve Barclay of refusing to even discuss the issue.

But Mr Zahawi said the government is putting contingency plans in place to try to minimize disruption over the Christmas period.

“It is the right and responsible thing to do to have contingency plans in place,” he said, referring to putting the military in ambulances and on borders.

“We are looking at the military, we are looking at a specialist response force which we have actually set up a number of years ago.

“We have to make sure are borders are always secure and that is something we guarantee. Things like driving ambulances and other parts of the public sector – we have got to try and minimize disruption.”

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