- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

LONDON (AP) — Paramedics, emergency crews, teachers and even some employees from the prime minister’s office took to the streets of Britain for the country’s largest strike in decades — drawing attention to government cuts but failing to bring the nation to a standstill.

Public sector employees staged the one-day walkout Wednesday over government demands that they work longer before receiving a pension and pay more in monthly contributions, part of austerity measures to tackle Britain’s 967 billion-pound ($1.5 trillion) debt.

The strike came a day after the government announced that public sector pay raises will be limited to 1 percent through 2014 — even as inflation now runs about 5 percent.

“The government wants us to work longer, pay more and at the end get less. How fair is that?” said Eleanor Smith, president of the UNISON trade union which represents about 1 million health, education and law enforcement staff. Smith joined a picket outside Birmingham Women’s Hospital in central England, where she works as a nurse.

Prime Minister David Cameron defended the government’s stance in Parliament, insisting that “as people live longer it’s only right and only fair that you should make greater contributions.”

“I don’t want to see any strikes, I don’t want to see schools closed, I don’t want see problems at our borders, but this government must make responsible decisions,” Cameron told the House of Commons.

Labor unions in Britain said as many as 2 million public sector staff joined the strike, which would make it the largest since the infamous industrial dispute known as the Winter of Discontent in 1979, which presaged the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

A small number of separate protesters, meanwhile, stormed an office in London’s West End as night fell. Police said the incident was unrelated to the strike.

London police said 52 people had been arrested in the protests, including 37 people detained after clashes at a rally in Hackney, east London.

About two-thirds of England’s 21,700 state-run schools were closed as teachers joined the strike. Health officials said 60,000 non-urgent operations and appointments had been postponed in advance in England, while in Scotland at least 3,000 operations and thousands more appointments were canceled.

London’s ambulance service said it was responding to life-threatening injuries only. Some police forces warned those calling a non-emergency number that they may need to leave a message and wait for a response.

“We are now under severe pressure as a result of today’s industrial action, and a significant number of our patients are waiting to be sent an ambulance response,” said London Ambulance Deputy Director of Operations Jason Killens.

At London’s Hammersmith Hospital, the corridors were quieter than usual as fewer patients were being treated. Some medical technicians were on strike and in some departments only emergency operations were being performed. There were similar staff shortages at many other hospitals.

London’s Heathrow Airport and airlines had warned international travelers that they could be delayed for up to 12 hours at immigration halls because of the strike, but flights arriving Wednesday from the United States, Asia and Europe were largely unaffected — in part because of contingency plans to staff immigration desks. Those extra staff included members of Cameron’s policy unit and his press secretary.

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