One of the architects of the Conservative austerity years has denied to the Covid public inquiry that the spending cuts left a “depleted” health and social care system and rising inequality by the time the pandemic hit in 2020.
When asked by Kate Blackwell, a counsel to the inquiry, whether that was the case, George Osborne said (PDF): “Most certainly not. I completely reject that.”
Osborne (pictured), who was chancellor from 2010 to 2016, was giving evidence to the inquiry – which has now entered its second week of public hearings – as part of its investigation into the UK’s preparedness and resilience for a pandemic.
He was later asked if government policy had damaged the social care and health systems to such an extent that “those in the worst situations of society were disproportionately affected when Covid hit”, and if that situation had been “identifiable” and “predictable” and “should have been part of the government planning”.
But Osborne told the inquiry on Tuesday: “I just completely reject that.”
He said Britain had been coping with the after-effects of a “huge economic crash” and “of course that had an impact on poverty in the country”.
He claimed this poverty “would have been worse” if the government had not “tried to address the risk to the public finances, because that would have led to a fiscal crisis, like you saw across much of Europe, that would have meant even less funding for these public services”.
But when asked if the state of the social care system worsened during his time in office, he said he was “not sure” and claimed that the social care and health systems were experiencing “exactly the same kinds of pressures as the pressures being experienced in most western democracies”.
He added: “And 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, [and] would not have had the fiscal space to deal with the coronavirus pandemic when it hit seven years later.”
He later admitted that there had been significant cuts to local government budgets in the years he had been chancellor in successive Conservative-led governments.
Osborne was shown an Office for Budget Responsibility fiscal risk report from July 2017, a year after he left office, which showed that spending in real terms on adult social care in England had fallen by 9.1 per cent between 2010-11 and 2015-16.
He admitted that “there were reductions in local government budgets” which was “because the country had had an enormous financial crash” and “was poorer than it had been before”.
He said the debate about the “social care problem” was still “unsolved” because “the solutions are currently unpalatable to the political system, which I would suggest is a reflection of being unpalatable to the broader taxpayer and society”.
Blackwell asked him if he believed that, although “in certain aspects” the effects of Covid were “felt more keenly by those most disadvantaged in society”, that had had “no connection whatsoever to the effects of austerity that were brought in in 2010”.
He replied: “That’s absolutely my contention.”
During his evidence, the former chancellor also questioned whether it was right that schools were closed during the pandemic to save the lives of people who were particularly vulnerable to the virus.
He told the inquiry: “You know, I don’t want to jump ahead for this inquiry, but should the schools have been locked down in the way they were?”
He said these were “absolutely critical questions about balancing, you know, the life expectancy of an 80-year-old versus the educational opportunities of an eight-year-old, incredibly hard questions”.
He added: “I had school-age children at the time of the pandemic… Some people will say the education of the child is more important than, you know, protecting older patients in, you know, our care homes.”
He said that “if you can give some kind of guidance to answering that question, it is the single most useful thing this inquiry can do for any future government”.
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