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Covid Inquiry: Osborne Denies Austerity led to Health Inequalities

covid inquiry

As the Covid-19 Inquiry continues, former chancellor from 2010-15, George Osborne was questioned earlier today. Osborne has admitted that plans were not in place for a lockdown situation and rejects the idea that the consequences of austerity were a depleted health and social care capacity and rising inequality in the UK.

The Covid-19 Inquiry

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has been set up to examine the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and learn lessons for the future. The Inquiry’s work is guided by its Terms of Reference which set out the key aims such as:

  • To consider any disparities evident in the impact of the pandemic on different categories of people, including, but not limited to, those relating to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.
  • To listen to and consider carefully the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss as a result of the pandemic.

Moreover, the Inquiry will examine the COVID-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and produce a factual narrative account, including:

  • how decisions were made, communicated, recorded, and implemented
  • the roles of, and collaboration between, central government, devolved administrations, regional and local authorities, and the voluntary and community sector
  • the availability and use of data, research and expert evidence
  • legislative and regulatory control and enforcement
  • shielding and the protection of the clinically vulnerable
  • the use of lockdowns and other ‘non-pharmaceutical’ interventions such as social distancing and the use of face coverings
  • testing and contact tracing, and isolation
  • Mental health impacts
  • Travel and borders
  • The justice system
  • The management and responses of the healthcare system
  • Sick pay

George Osborne’s questioning

The Inquiry is currently in its second week and is now exploring resilience and preparedness. This is being chaired by Kate Blackwell KC. Osborne began by expressing “heartfelt sympathy to all those who lost a loved one during the pandemic” but said the Treasury could not be held directly responsible for the government’s unpreparedness during the pandemic, particularly concerning the implementation of a lockdown, as there was “no assumption that you would ask the population to stay at home”.

Osborne also said China gave the world the idea of lockdowns, and that overwhelmed hospitals in Italy convinced Western governments that a lockdown was required. “Would we all have gone into lockdown if China had not locked down in January and February,” he said.

In regard to austerity, he rejected the idea that measures imposed during his time in office had depleted health and social care capacity in the UK by the time the pandemic struck. Echoing David Cameron yesterday, he robustly defended his economic policies of reduced government spending in 2010 – during which cuts were introduced in welfare spending.

Osborne said there was no alternative to austerity after the financial crash and that health was prioritised. “What I accept is that you could spend more money on the NHS… but you have to make a calculation balancing the resources each of those services get and the central calculation which every household has to make is what can we actually afford“.

Osborne said he accepts there were rising pressures on the social care system but contended that these were driven by Britain’s ageing population at a rapid rate and the cost of medical treatment going up.

Opposition

Various campaign groups have released reports showing the disproportionate impact austerity had on groups including women, children, people of colour and pensioners. A report prepared jointly by Prof Sir Michael Marmot, director of University College London’s Institute of Health Equity, and Prof Clare Bambra, an expert in public health from Newcastle University, said austerity policies affected the health of the nation in the lead up to the pandemic as before the crisis began, public services had seen reduced access, longer waiting times, missed targets, dissatisfaction and notably GPs and hospitals were missing almost all routine targets.

Moreover, Blackwell said the inquiry heard from Professor Clare Bambra and Professor Sir Michael Marmot, who said austerity since 2010 was likely to be the cause of adverse changes and health inequality in the UK.

Final thought

Some may assert that austerity was not a choice and was necessary to stabilise the economy. However, The contention that austerity had no negative impact on the UK’s response to Covid-19 in the face of reports stating otherwise is difficult to believe.

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