Deep cuts to public spending helped Britain to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak, former chancellor George Osborne told a public inquiry on Tuesday.
Osborne was accused of performing a “dance of denial” by the British Medical Association (BMA) after suggesting austerity gave the UK the “fiscal space to deal with the coronavirus pandemic”.
The austerity programme, overseen by Osborne, was criticised by a UN investigation in 2018 for inflicting “unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world”.
The wide-ranging Covid inquiry will look into the UK’s preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic, how the government responded and what lessons can be learned for the future.
The UK had one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for almost 227,000 people.
Asked by inquiry barrister Kate Blackwell KC whether he agreed the “consequences of austerity were a depleted health and social care capacity and rising inequality in the UK” by the time Covid-19 hit, Osborne replied: “Most certainly not, I completely reject that.”
Giving evidence under oath, Osborne added: “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.”
But his comments faced immediate pushback.
Professor Martin McKee, BMA president, said: “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. The removal of the social safety net, the cutting and reallocating of public health budgets, the underfunding of public services – all of this had its greatest impact on the most disadvantaged.
“Tens of thousands of excess deaths in the poorest areas were attributed to austerity policies even before the pandemic hit, with ill health among the key causes. Austerity left the poorest exposed to the worst of this catastrophe. In the decade after 2010 life expectancy in the UK hardly improved at all, lagging ever further behind all other high income countries except the US.”
He added: “The NHS saw almost no capital investment in our health service for a decade alongside a lack of funding for a properly-staffed NHS. When the pandemic came we had a quarter of the ICU beds per patient that Germany had, a quarter of the hospital beds per person, and a quarter fewer doctors per person.
“Mr Osborne justified all this by saying austerity was about ‘fixing the roof’ while the sun shone, that the UK’s balance sheet allowed us to respond fiscally when the pandemic came. But numbers on a spreadsheet are no substitute for a healthy population and a robust NHS and public health system. Mr Osborne had a chance to reflect on that today and it is to his great discredit he did not take that chance.”
Others were critical on social media.