Armed forces personnel could drive ambulances and perform frontline hospital functions under contingency plans to deal with a potential winter of strikes.
Health and defense officials are drawing up a contingency strategy as ambulance drivers and paramedics consider joining nurses on picket lines in the coming months.
As first reported by the Times, the government could use the Military Aid to Civil Authorities (MACA) protocol to keep key NHS services running during major strikes.
Maca was used during the coronavirus pandemic to help healthcare workers in need with vaccinations, tests, and the delivery of protective equipment.
The Department of Health and Social Care has not made any formal request for help to the Ministry of Defence.
A government spokeswoman said: “We are working with the NHS on a range of options to manage the disruption to health and care services during industrial action.
“Hospitals will do everything possible to ensure patients and the public are kept safe, however it may be necessary to cancel scheduled appointments and prioritize emergency care for those who need urgent care only.”
The prospect of the strikes being called off before Christmas looked bleak as Transport Secretary Mark Harper said public sector wage increases in line with runaway inflation were “unaffordable”.
The Cabinet minister said there was “just no money” to meet the demands of workers preparing to take industrial action, but hinted at progress in talks on the rail strikes.
Harper signaled a change in the negotiating mandate, saying wage increases could follow if rail workers accept the reforms, after “positive” talks with Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch.
Nurses are set to stage their first UK-wide strike next month as they will join transport and postal workers on the pickets in disputes over pay and conditions.
Mr Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “Inflation-matching or inflation-busting pay increases are unaffordable.
“I think we want to try to give all very hard working public sector workers decent pay raises, but they can’t be inflation-busting pay raises.
“There just isn’t the money to pay for them given the context, we haven’t seen them in the private sector either, private sector wage increases have generally been set below the level of inflation, which I accept is difficult for people. .”
He told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg that rail bosses “will have the ability to come to an agreement”, when pressed on whether they have the mandate to properly negotiate with the RMT.
“But we have to be able to negotiate that reform package, because that’s just what brings the savings,” Harper said.
“I don’t have a bottomless pit of taxpayer money to throw at this problem.”
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members of England, Wales and Northern Ireland will withdraw on December 15 and 20 if the dispute is not resolved.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay has urged the nurses union to “go back to the table” for talks but refuses to talk about pay, instead wanting to talk about conditions like pension arrangements, vacations, rosters and the availability of free coffee.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen wrote to Barclay telling him it’s “negotiations or nothing.”