Osborne rejects claims austerity depleted NHS ahead of coronavirus pandemic

George Osborne has rejected claims his austerity programme while chancellor depleted the NHS as he suggested his cuts better prepared Britain to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The Conservative former MP “completely” disputed the allegations at the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry from medics and unions that his cuts left health and social care in a “parlous state”.

Mr Osborne (pictured) argued on Tuesday that the UK may not have had the financial scope to spend vast amounts to support the public through the crisis without austerity.

The chancellor between 2010 and 2016 conceded that his Treasury should have planned economic measures such as the furlough scheme needed in the pandemic.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has argued that the “political choice” of austerity under prime minister David Cameron left the UK “hugely exposed to the pandemic”.

And the British Medical Association has claimed the cuts put the nation “severely on the back foot” as the first phase of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry examines whether proper preparations were made.

Mr Osborne argued that it was key to ensure that the economy after the “massive economic shock” of the 2008 financial crisis was able to “flex in a crisis”.

Inquiry barrister Kate Blackwell KC asked: “Do you agree, by the time Covid-19 hit the consequences of austerity were a depleted health and social care capacity and rising inequality in the UK?”

Mr Osborne replied: “Most certainly not, I completely reject that.

“I would say if we had not done that Britain would have been more exposed, not just to future things like the coronavirus pandemic, but indeed to the fiscal crisis which very rapidly followed in countries across Europe…”

Mr Osborne said he needed to repair the “seriously impaired public finances”.

“If we had not had a clear plan to put the public finances on a sustainable path then Britain might have experienced a fiscal crisis, we would not have had the fiscal space to deal with the coronavirus pandemic when it hit,” he said.

In his written evidence, Mr Osborne argues that his action “had a material and positive effect on the UK’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Mr Cameron, who gave evidence on Monday, has already argued the cuts were “absolutely essential to get the British economy and British public finances back to health so you can cope with a future crisis”.

Mr Osborne conceded that the Treasury did not plan for an extended lockdown, but questioned whether such a plan would have led to a better furlough scheme anyway.

“There was no assumption that you would mandate that the population to stay at home for months and months on end so there was no planning for a lockdown,” he said.

Asked whose fault it was, he said that “I don’t think it’s particularly fair to apportion blame” when scientists were not “elevating” threat of such a virus spreading rapidly”.

But he accepted that “with hindsight” the Treasury should have developed a blueprint for such a health emergency.

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak accused Mr Osborne of “trying to rewrite history and gaslight the British public”.

“Everyone can see the damage austerity did to the nation,” he said.

Earlier at the inquiry, former minister Sir Oliver Letwin told the inquiry that failing to appoint someone to have sole responsibility over planning for pandemics and other threats has been an “error”.

The minister, who has described himself as Mr Cameron’s “Mr Fix It”, said resilience only formed a “relatively small part” of his role, despite it being in his brief between 2011 and 2016.

Instead he said he spent a lot of time on “endless discussions” with Liberal Democrat colleagues in coalition with the Tories in the “rather wide-ranging and unusual role”.

Sir Oliver said: “Actually there really ought to be a minister solely devoted to resilience at a senior level.”

Asked if anyone had ever had this role, he said: “There hasn’t as far as I’m aware, and I think that is an error.

He expressed regret at following advice to focus on critical national infrastructure, which he described as “wildly under-resilient”, instead of pandemic flu, which he believed may have allowed him to identify “some other catastrophic pathogen” to prepare for.

Labour said the admissions were “too little, too late”, adding the Conservatives “cannot be trusted to protect the public from the emergencies of tomorrow”.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) UK Covid Enquiry.