Between 2010 and 2016, then-prime minister David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne used the 2008 recession as a rationale for their austerity programme – a programme which brought deep cuts to vital public services. Fuad Alakbarov, human rights defender and photojournalist, described austerity as “theft, the greatest transfer of wealth from poor to the rich since the enclosures”.
Meanwhile, others have argued it was a key contributing factor to disenfranchised British voters opting for Brexit. Some have also said that austerity left us needlessly unprepared for the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. And it’s on this matter that the Covid-19 Inquiry will question Cameron and Osbourne on 19 and 20 June.
In a press release, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said that austerity impacted “four key pillars of pandemic preparedness”:
- Safe staffing levels in public services
- Public service capacity and resources
- A strong safety net through the social security system
- Robust health and safety protections at work
The TUC also claimed that the greater part of the damage was done from 2010 to 2016 in the Cameron years. It said:
For example, between 2010 and 2016 the real value of typical nurse’s annual pay was cut by £2,400 based on CPI inflation and £3,800 based on RPI inflation. The challenges this posed for recruitment and retention meant that when the pandemic hit there were 44,000 nursing vacancies in NHS England – equivalent to 12% of the nursing workforce. …
Cameron and Osborne claimed that funding cuts would put the public finances on a stable footing and help create strong economic growth. This was disputed by the TUC and many others at the time on the grounds that:
- Borrowing was sustainable, as the Treasury could access long-term loans at low rates of interest;
- Cuts would reduce economic demand, which would hold back growth and restrict revenue flowing into the Treasury; and
- Cuts would leave important social and economic needs unmet, creating a long-term drag on economic growth and productivity.
By 2016, these concerns had been realised. Economic growth had been much slower than the forecast George Osborne presented in his 2010 budget. This meant less revenue, so he had borrowed £200 billion more than he first planned. And the UK had experienced its slowest recovery from an economic downturn in more than a century – including the Great Depression.
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The TUC says that the UK paid multiple costs for austerity. It not only decimated public services, but also weakened the economy, led to higher public debt, pushed millions of people into poverty, and led to the worst pay crisis for two centuries.
It also produced a full-length report that goes into more depth on the data.
Questions to answer
The TUC said in its press release that “working people and the public need honest answers from Cameron and Osborne about the choices they made to cut services and support that are vital to preparedness and resilience”. Questions it particularly wants the inquiry to answer include:
- Failure to act on warnings: Why did they not act on the warnings of experts, including health experts, disaster planners, economists and workplace representatives on the harm being done by austerity and how it was weakening the UK’s resilience in case of a national emergency?
- Risks from pay cuts and understaffing: What consideration did they give to the risks of a staffing crisis in the NHS and social care due to real pay cuts? Why did they not have a workforce strategy that included capacity for dealing with national emergencies?
- Risks from underfunded and overstretched public services: What consideration did they give to the impacts of cuts to public services such as the schools, fire services, social care and public transport on preparedness for a national emergency and civil contingencies?
- Risks from decimating health and safety enforcement and public health: What consideration did they give to the impacts of cuts to the Health and Safety Executive and public health budgets on enforcement of rules and protections in workplaces, and the tracking and tracing of infections, in the event of a pandemic?
- Risk from social security cuts and greater poverty: When making social security cuts, what consideration did they give to poverty and health outcomes, including increased exposure and transmission, and greater vulnerability and susceptibility to serious illness, in the event of a pandemic?
Paul Nowak, TUC general secretary, said:
David Cameron and George Osborne have serious questions to answer. Make no mistake, austerity was a political choice – and one that left the UK hugely exposed to the pandemic.
Their policies weakened the foundations of our society by hollowing out our public services and shredding our safety net.
Cameron and Osborne imposed brutal – and unnecessary – spending cuts in the face of widespread opposition and warnings from experts. And for what? They spectacularly failed to deliver on their promises of stable public finances and strong economic growth.
Many other countries took a different approach – protecting public services and using public investment to achieve a stronger economies and fairer societies. If the UK had followed the same path, we would have been much better prepared when the pandemic hit.
It’s widely known that increased public spending and income equals decreased excess deaths. However, the Tories ignored the evidence, anyway. By the winter of 2016, they knew that excess deaths were at their highest since 1976. They also knew in 2015 that their policies has already caused the highest number of people to take their own lives in 15 years. Yet still, they continued to cut spending – and haven’t stopped.
In this decade, the Tories are already slashing at least £10bn from social security in real terms. With Liz Truss and her Tory ministers now planning to cut benefits even further, they will certainly kill even more people – as will theirs and the Bank of England’s failure to control inflation. The Tories do literally have the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on their hands – and to blame it on the policies, rather than the perpetrators, absolves these killers of responsibility for their crimes.
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