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  • NEW REPORT: TUC report shows how austerity led to unsafe staffing in public services, a broken safety net, and decimated workplace safety enforcement when the pandemic began
  • “Austerity cost the nation dearly. The consequences were painful and tragic. The inquiry is our chance to learn from this” says the TUC

Austerity left the UK “hugely unprepared" for the Covid pandemic, according to a new report published by the TUC today (Monday).

The report looks at four pillars of the country’s pandemic preparedness:

  1. Safe staffing levels in public services
  2. Public service capacity and resources
  3. A strong safety net through the social security system
  4. Robust health and safety protections at work

It finds that in each of these key areas, funding cuts reduced the country’s capacity to respond to the pandemic.

The report is published as the TUC today holds a joint press conference with the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice about the lessons that must be learned through the inquiry, to save lives in the future.

Safe staffing levels in health and social care

The report details how safe staffing levels in health and social care were undermined by multiple years of pay caps and pay freezes, which impeded recruitment and increased staff turnover. This left both health and social care dangerously understaffed when the pandemic began:

  • Between 2010 and 2020, the number of nurses per capita in the UK grew by less than one per cent – despite demand for care rising by one-third. This is in stark contrast to the OECD average of nurses per capita rising by 10 per cent.
  • In 2019 the average NHS worker was earning £3,000 less in real terms than in 2010, with significant impacts on both recruitment and retention. 
  • In social care, the turnover rate for staff in England increased from 22 per cent in 2012/13 to 31.8 per cent in 2019/20.
  • When the pandemic hit, a quarter (24%) of social care workers in England were employed on zero-hours contracts, with the turnover rate higher among these workers.

Public services capacity and resources

Public services capacity was damaged by steep cuts to almost every part of the public sector.

In 2020 when the pandemic hit, spending per capita was still lower than in 2010 in social care, transport, housing, childcare, schools, higher education, police, fire services, and environmental protection.

This limited the ability of public services to contribute effectively to civil contingencies, and to continue essential activities effectively such children’s education.

  • Between 2010 and 2020, school funding per pupil was cut by 8.3% in England, 6.4% in Wales, 2.4% in Scotland and 10.5% in Northern Ireland.
  • Local authority core spending power was cut by a third between 2010 and 2020. Over the same period, demographic changes increased pressures – for instance, leading to higher referrals and more complex cases in both adult and children’s social care.  And new statutory duties in public health, social care and homelessness have stretched budgets further.
  • In 2019, capital investment in the UK health sector was 10% below 2010 levels. This forced NHS providers to close hospitals and delay equipment upgrades.

A strong safety net through the social security system

The social security safety net was damaged by direct cuts through benefit freezes, and by reforms that reduced entitlement to help and narrowed eligibility to fewer people.

Most of these benefits cuts were made in the period 2010 to 2016 when David Cameron was Prime Minister and George Osborne was Chancellor – both of whom are set to give evidence at the Covid inquiry.

The benefit cuts increased poverty levels. Living in poverty was associated with greater risks of exposure to Covid-19, and greater levels of vulnerability to more serious health consequences from being ill with Covid.

  • Since 2010, £14 billion has been cut from support to households through social security.
  • A family not in work has lost on average £1,160 a year in social security support since 2010, and a family in work has lost on average £460.
  • Disabled people have lost on average £1,200 of annual support, comparing 2021 with 2010.

Robust health and safety protections at work

The pandemic had a particular impact on workplaces – especially for key workers and those who could not work from home. But the enforcement of rules to keep workers safe at work was compromised by cuts that decimated public health and workplace safety regulators, and by confusion about who had responsibility to enforce the rules.

During the pandemic, when workplace risks multiplied, workplace inspections and enforcement notices fell to an all-time low, despite vast numbers of workplace-linked transmission caused by poor health and safety practice.

  • Funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE - the body responsible for workplace safety) in 2021/22 was 43% lower than in 2009/10 in real terms.
  • Staff numbers at the HSE have been cut by 35% since 2010.
  • The number of workplaces investigated by a safety inspector fell by 70% from 2010 to 2020.

TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“To learn lessons and save future lives, we must take an unflinching look at the choices made by our leaders in the years before the pandemic.

“In the NHS and social care, funding cuts put staff levels in the danger zone. Cuts to social security pushed many more people below the poverty line, leaving them more vulnerable to infection. And cuts to health and safety left workers exposed to rogue employers who cut corners and put their lives at risk.

“Austerity cost the nation dearly. It left us hugely unprepared for the pandemic. And it left far too many workers unprotected. The consequences were painful and tragic.

“The inquiry is our chance to learn the lessons – and to understand why we have to rebuild our public services so that they are strong enough to protect us in a future crisis.”

Editors note

- Austerity and the pandemic – full report: The full TUC report – Austerity and the pandemic: how cuts damaged four vital pillars of pandemic resilience – can be downloaded here:

- Covid inquiry module 1 – resilience and preparedness: For more detail on the first module of the public inquiry, including its full scope, access to evidence and dates for public hearings, visit the inquiry website:  

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