George Osborne, the former chancellor responsible for implementing austerity measures in the early 2010s, testified at a public inquiry on Tuesday and asserted that deep cuts to public spending had aided Britain in combatting the Covid-19 outbreak.
His statement drew sharp criticism from the British Medical Association (BMA), which accused Osborne of engaging in a “dance of denial” by suggesting that austerity provided the UK with the “fiscal space to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.”
Osborne’s austerity program had previously come under scrutiny, with a UN investigation in 2018 condemning it for causing “unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world.”
The ongoing public inquiry into Covid-19 will examine the country’s preparedness for the pandemic, the government’s response, and the lessons to be learned for the future.
The UK experienced one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus being cited as the cause of death for nearly 227,000 individuals.
During the inquiry, Osborne was questioned by barrister Kate Blackwell KC about whether he agreed with the notion that “austerity led to a depleted health and social care capacity and rising inequality in the UK” by the time Covid-19 struck.
He categorically rejected this assertion, stating, “Most certainly not, I completely reject that.”
Under oath, Osborne further explained, “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.”
However, his comments faced immediate backlash. Professor Martin McKee, President of the BMA, expressed dissatisfaction with Osborne’s response, remarking, “The Covid Inquiry deserved better than George Osborne’s dance of denial today.
For him to say there is ‘no connection whatsoever between austerity and the unequal impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged communities’ is quite staggering.”
McKee went on to highlight the detrimental effects of austerity, such as the removal of the social safety net, the reallocation of public health budgets, and the underfunding of public services, which disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable segments of society.
He also noted that even before the pandemic, tens of thousands of excess deaths in impoverished areas were attributed to austerity policies, with poor health being one of the leading causes.
McKee emphasized that austerity left the poorest individuals exposed to the worst consequences of the catastrophe, as life expectancy in the UK hardly improved during the decade after 2010, lagging behind other high-income countries.
The lack of capital investment in the NHS and inadequate funding for a properly staffed healthcare system was also criticized, with McKee pointing out that the UK had significantly fewer ICU beds, hospital beds, and doctors per person compared to countries like Germany.
Many others took to social media to express their discontent with Osborne’s assertions.
As the public inquiry continues, Osborne’s claims about the impact of austerity on the pandemic response will undoubtedly remain a subject of intense scrutiny and debate.
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