Austerity Britain and Coronavirus: Never Again

The coronavirus pandemic has wrought havoc across all aspects of public and private life. The emergence of the virus has highlighted the fragility of our so-called ‘welfare state’. Over the last decade, the flawed policy of austerity and its tendency to short-term monetary efficiency over long-term security, has created serious gaps in the government’s ability to deal with the outbreak. From housing insecurities and domestic abuse support service cuts to an NHS workforce crisis and a lack of beds per capita, austerity Britain’s legitimacy is tearing at the seams.

The Housing Act was passed in 1980 and granted five million council house tenants in England and Wales the Right to Buy their house from their local authority. Moreover, successive governments have gone to considerable measures to prevent local councils from building affordable council houses. Selling off affordable homes and the marketization of the housing market itself has led to increased rent prices and significant barriers to accessing a stable home. Paying this rent, in the context of coronavirus layoffs and reduced wages, has been an enormous challenge to many people.

As of 1st April, almost one million people had claimed benefits via the notoriously slow universal credit system. Whilst many jobs were saved through the government’s Job Retention Scheme, the 20 per cent of wages that employers have variably chose to cover will, for many, be the difference between paying rent and eating food. Moreover, the three-month eviction ban may help people in the short-term, but three months down the line, the chance of full economic recovery is looking increasingly unlikely – especially as we are now in a global recession.

The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the need to invest in domestic abuse support services. Absolutely life-saving services have been cut and whilst Women’s Aid demanded £48+ million to mitigate this issue, Home Secretary Priti Patel made the underwhelming offer of an extra £2 million to protect and uphold these crucial services. This meek offer comes in the context of local authority spending on refuges being cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017, forcing several to close their doors to what is a safe haven for so many women and children. The issue of domestic abuse is often a silent one, but the very conditions of lockdown can exacerbate volatile, coercive and controlling behaviours by abusers. Therefore, despite the marked ambivalence now and over the last 10 years, funding for these services must be provided now more than ever.

The NHS workforce crisis and particularly, the shortage of nurses has been a pertinent issue in public discourse. The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) conceded that the removal of the student bursary in 2016 has been a ‘disaster’. To this point, the RCN believes it is one of the reasons why there are 43,000 unfilled vacancies. Applications from first-time students for nursing degrees have dropped from 52,740 in 2016 to 39,665 in 2019, a decrease of 13,075. Despite promises of grants in the General Election of 2019, cost-cutting has depleted the workforce prepared to deal with this virus. To offset a predicted shortage of 108,000 nurses by 2029, the government needs to stay true to its promise of bursaries, increase nurses’ wages and cease the volatile view that education and training are an overhead cost to be minimised.

Bed capacity, or lack thereof, is another key parameter with which to judge the health of the NHS and is often a feature of public discourse. As of 2019, there were approximately 140,000 consultant-led beds available in the NHS. This number has halved in the past 30 years and it has often been accounted to care outside of hospitals and faster treatment. However, in 2018, a growing concern erupted that this has gone too far and the NHS does not have enough hospital beds. Furthermore, the UK has 2.6 beds per 1,000 population versus 6.1 in France and 8.1 in Germany. A low amount of beds can indicate good treatment and patient turnover however; it can also mean there are high bed occupancy rates and increased wait times for patients.

In the context of coronavirus, the number of ICU beds available is crucial. The number of these critical care beds is low as well as staff to operate them, by international standards. To this point, the occupancy rate of ICU beds in January 2019 was 83 per cent. As of 2015, the UK had fewer doctors for its population size than other European countries, at 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people compared with an EU15 average of 3.9. Ultimately, coronavirus has highlighted the shortfalls in underfunding. Staff have been forced to choose between which patients they treat, emergency hospitals have been sprung up in a number of weeks and retired staff returned to work in a desperate attempt to offset an ongoing public health crisis – exacerbated by an initial herd immunity strategy.

The pursuit of monetary efficiency and its devastating effects show a lack of foresight and a political preference towards short-term gain rather than long-term security for British people. However, what makes this strategy even more abundantly cruel is the revelation that in 2016 a simulation codenamed Exercise Cygnus, modelled by Imperial College London, was given to the government and showed the steps to be prepared for a virus with a similar infection rate as coronavirus. The simulation predicted a shortage of critical care beds, morgue capacity and personal protective equipment. All issues prevalent in this outbreak.

There has been a spike in contacts made to Women’s Aid and other domestic abuse support services, yet a lack of resources makes it impossible to follow up with the quality of support people deserve. There is increasing precarity about how renters will survive the financial blow of the outbreak and lockdown. As of 15th April, 12,868 people have died of coronavirus and this figure is likely to be a conservative estimate as Britain is not testing in carehomes. Many of these deaths were unnecessary. Not one of these issues can be set apart from years of marketisation, cost-cutting, wage stagnation, and rising inequality. When we get out of this crisis and we stand again in the face of austerity Britain, we need to say two words.

Never Again.

By Ellie Stainforth Mallison

Liberal Arts with Geography student at the University of Nottingham.

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