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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
- 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: https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/2023-06/TUC_Austerityandthepandemic_June23.pdf
- 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: https://covid19.public-inquiry.uk/
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