Unions slam David Cameron’s austerity defence at Covid-19 Inquiry

'The cuts he imposed massively damaged the readiness and resilience of our public services'

David Cameron has faced a backlash for defending austerity measures imposed by his government whilst giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry yesterday.  

As the first politician to be questioned during the Inquiry on Monday, David Cameron was pressed over his government’s policies in the run up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

During his grilling, the former Tory prime minister admitted there were failures in his government’s preparations for a pandemic, however went on to strongly defend the austerity measures imposed under his leadership which saw health services suffer.  

Cameron argued: “Our economic strategy was about safeguarding and strengthening the economy and the nation’s finances so we could cope with whatever crisis hits us next.”

He said he still believed that his government’s economic policies were ‘absolutely essential’ to get the British economy ‘back to health’.

He insisted that NHS real terms funding had increased under his government, despite unions representing NHS workers coming out to highlight the crisis of understaffing and under-resourcing in the decade running up to pandemic.

Dr Philip Banfield, chair of the BMA doctors’ union said that severe funding cuts meant health staff went into the pandemic hugely ill prepared.

“I have seen first-hand the damage wrought by years of austerity and a failure to prioritise the nation’s health,” Banfield said.

“The UK was severely on the back foot when Covid took hold, and this proved disastrous – for the doctors I represent and the millions who suffered at the hands of the virus.”

Banfield said the UK had about half the number of intensive care beds that comparable countries in Europe had at the start of the pandemic, which, ‘set us up for being ill prepared’.

According to the BMA, by 2019/20, after a series of austerity-led Budgets, health spending was around £50 billion below what it should have been had it matched previous government commitments.

Pat Cullen, general secretary of the nursing union RCN said Cameron’s denial about the effects of austerity had left nurses feeling ‘angered’.

“David Cameron’s denial has angered many nurses today,” Cullen reacted.

“It was at this very time that the Government cut thousands of nursing posts leaving the NHS unable to weather any storm and particularly not a pandemic.”

The TUC accused Cameron of being ‘in denial’ about the ‘huge damage’ his austerity policies caused to the UK’s ability to prepare for a pandemic.

Commenting on Cameron’s evidence to the inquiry, general secretary of the TUC, Paul Nowak, said his cuts had left millions vulnerable.

“David Cameron is in denial about the huge damage caused by his austerity policies – both to public services and the UK economy.

“The evidence is clear that the cuts he imposed massively damaged the readiness and resilience of our public services. And they shredded our social security safety net – leaving millions vulnerable.

“We must learn the lesson that cuts have costs. And we must strengthen our public services and safety net so that we are never left exposed in the same way again.”

Speaking to Andrew Marr on LBC last night, Professor Sir Michael Marmot rubbished David Cameron’s argument that austerity was ‘an absolute necessity’, highlighting how it was instead, a political choice.

Marmot set the record straight: “David Cameron’s argument was, we needed to get the economy in good shape to fund health care.

“If you look at what happened to GDP per person, had we continued on the trend pre-2007, our GDP would have been much higher, in fact we’re a third lower per person than we would have been had we continued on that trend, and that’s the worse of all the rich countries.

“Decline in real incomes, they’re 5% lower than they were 18 years ago and that’s also the worst of all the rich countries, so the argument that we had to get the economy in shape so we could do all these other things, they did not get the economy in good shape, they got it in dreadful shape.”

The former Prime Minster was heckled as he left the inquiry yesterday, as one member of the public shouted, ‘Shame on you’ whilst another asked, ‘Have you damaged the reputation of the Tory Party?’.

Ahead of this week’s Inquiry, the BMA called for David Cameron, George Osbourne and Jeremy Hunt to be ‘taken to task’ in their questioning over decisions they made as government leaders in the run up to the pandemic.

George Osbourne will give evidence today, with a further focus on how austerity affected preparations for a pandemic.

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

(Photo credit: SkyNews / YouTube screenshot)

Left Foot Forward’s trade union reporting is supported by the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust

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