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.
Maria Haverton, 36, a hospital worker, said joining the strike had been a last resort.
"We realize the government is having budget problems, but why didn't they see this coming a long time ago? I'm worried about my pension. I'm worried about my son's future," she said, close to London's King's Cross rail station.
Others stood outside universities, complaining that education in Britain was already suffering with the cuts.
"It seems like the sectors that need to be protected the most — education and health — are the ones being the most affected," said Holly Smith, 28.
Britain's government said less than a quarter of government civil service staff, about 135,000 people, had walked out and that more staff than expected had showed at ports and airports.
Some protesters wore red T-shirts with the slogan, "Get Angry and Fight Back," a variation of the British wartime propaganda poster, "Keep Calm and Carry on."
Treasury chief George Osborne said Tuesday the age for collecting state pensions would be raised to 67 in 2026, earlier than previously planned. His decision followed an official forecast that cut Britain's predicted growth to a feeble 0.7 percent next year, from the previous 2.5 percent prediction made in March.
Osborne insists public pensions must be reformed as taxpayers contribute about 32 billion pounds ($50 billion) each year. A recent government report warned the gap between contributions and payments could rise to 9 billion pounds ($14 billion) by 2015.
Botanists, nuclear physicists and catering staff at the Houses of Parliament — who formed picket lines outside the famous building — also joined the strike, while off Britain's northernmost tip, ferry services were suspended to the Shetland Isles.
Associated Press Writers Paisley Dodds, Cassandra Vinograd and Meera Selva in London contributed to this story.