London – Public sector workers on Wednesday began Britain’s biggest strike in a generation to protest austerity measures, a day after the British government said that it was falling behind with its deficit-reduction plan and that the measures would drag on for two more years.
Courts, schools, hospitals, airports and government offices could all be hit by the strike, which has come to be seen as an emblem of resistance to government plans to squeeze public-sector pensions and cut government spending to reduce debt.
Education authorities across Britain said thousands of schools had closed because teachers were on strike, and many parents had taken a day off from work to look after children.
The stoppage was billed as the most extensive in decades, mirroring the turmoil in the debt-plagued euro zone across the English Channel and offering a reminder of the potential social and political impact of the financial crisis seizing much of Europe. While Britain is not part of the single European currency, it is a member of the European Union and relies on the continent for much of its trade.
The chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said on Tuesday that because of the slowdown in the euro zone, British economic growth this year and next would be slower than forecast in March and “debt will not fall as fast as we’d hoped.”
He added that Britain could avoid a recession next year only if the euro zone found a solution to its crisis.
“We’ll do whatever we can to protect Britain from this debt storm,” Mr. Osborne told a packed Parliament. “If the rest of Europe heads into a recession, it may be hard to avoid one here in the U.K.”
News reports on Wednesday spoke of picket lines being set up outside public buildings while workers planned rallies and demonstrations across Britain. Some of the first workers to strike were in Liverpool, where tunnels under the River Mersey were closed. But the overall level of participation remained unclear.
Some routes into London, normally clogged with commuter traffic and cars ferrying children to school, were virtually deserted as the strike began.
Medical officials said up to 60,000 nonurgent hospital procedures — from surgery to outpatient visits — were postponed because of the strike. But airport operators said that two Britain’s two biggest airports — Heathrow and Gatwick near London — were functioning with relatively little delay because many border service personnel had not joined the strike and were being assisted by other government officials to inspect the passports of arriving passengers.
The airports had been an early focus of worries that travelers could be delayed by up to 12 hours.
“Immigration queues are currently at normal levels,” BAA, the leading airport operator, said. In addition to drafting in support staff, the operator had also asked airlines to restrict the number of passengers booked on flights.
“However, there still remains a possibility for delays for arriving passengers later in the day,” BAA said.
The company operating Eurostar, the high-speed train using the Channel tunnel, had urged passengers to be prepared for delays. But, by midmorning, a Eurostar spokeswoman said, “everything is fine, with no delays or cancellations.”
At the weekly parliamentary session devoted to questions to the prime minister, the strike provoked fierce exchanges between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband, who accused the government of secretly welcoming the walkout.
“I don’t want to see any strikes,” Mr. Cameron said. “I don’t want to see our schools closed. I don’t want to see problems on our borders.”
He called the strike “something of a damp squib,” but acknowledged that it had forced the closure of 60 percent of British schools. He also said that “less than a third” of civil service employees were on strike.
Mr. Miliband said that the prime minister’s economic policies to deal with debt had not worked. “The truth is: his plan has failed, and he is making working families pay the price.”
Union leaders have said that more than two million people, including teachers and other government employees, are expected to go on strike, according to the Trades Union Congress.
In Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Osborne called on the unions to reconsider the strike action and return to the negotiating table, asking why they were “putting jobs at risk.”
“Call off the strike,” he said.
But Len McCluskey, general secretary of the trade union Unite, criticized Mr. Osborne’s economic strategy and compared him to “a pilot who has put his plane into a tailspin and is now wrestling desperately with the controls as the aircraft rapidly loses height.”
The government said British households, which are already squeezed by higher food and electricity prices, would have to endure an additional two years of austerity measures, now until 2017. The economy is growing slower than forecast, hurting chancellor Osborne’s initial 2010 plan to eliminate the budget deficit within five years.
It would also require Britain to borrow an additional £111 billion, or $172 billion, through 2015, a step Mr. Osborne was eager to avoid. The austerity measures would now drag on far beyond the next general election, currently scheduled for 2015.
The British economy will grow 0.9 percent this year, less than the 1.7 percent predicted earlier, and 0.7 percent next year, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast Tuesday. The agency predicted that the economy would then pick up and grow 2.1 percent in 2013. Debt as a share of gross domestic product would peak at 78 percent in the fiscal year ending in 2015, higher than the 71 percent initially predicted.
Amid fierce criticism from the opposition Labour Party, Mr. Osborne said Tuesday that he would stick to his austerity plan, which includes more than 600,000 job cuts in the public sector and other spending curbs, but that it would still take longer for the debt load to shrink.
Because of that, the government said it would cap pay increases for public sector workers at 1 percent for two years after the end of the current pay freeze.
The step was part of a small set of measures presented Tuesday, which also includes an increase in a bank tax, to generate extra revenue to invest in infrastructure projects and to fight youth unemployment.
But it added to the anger of workers’ representatives, who said the government was now not only “raiding” pensions but wages as well.
Howard Archer, chief economist for Britain at IHS Global Insight, said Mr. Osborne lacked the room to maneuver to offer any investments or tax cuts that could help the economic recovery.
“The economy is staring recession in the face again; he has no money to spend and events in the euro zone pose major downside risks over which he has no control,” Mr. Archer said.
But Mr. Osborne argued that an early adoption of the deficit plan last year helped Britain to keep its borrowing costs low and avoid problems faced by Greece or Italy, where borrowing costs became unsustainable.
Unlike the United States or the members of the euro zone, Britain already has a far-reaching austerity plan along with interest rates at record-low levels. It also has its own currency, which helps keep British exports to the euro zone relatively inexpensive.