British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Guy's Hospital on the first day of administering a coronavirus vaccine in London. File/Reuters
Jess Phillips, The Independent
I wonder what the members of the cabinet are saying in their weekly Zoom calls.
Beyond the bluff and bluster we are used to seeing in public, I wonder if they reflect on the things that have gone wrong throughout the coronavirus crisis.
I wonder if they think about the fact that Britain has one of the highest death tolls in Europe and ask themselves whether degrading local councils to the point that adult social care is on its knees, or reducing public health capacity in pretty much every major conurbation in the UK for the past decade, contributed to this.
I wonder if Rishi Sunak, after remembering to unmute himself, asks: “PM, just a thought: the areas where we handed out billions of pounds in contracts to Tory politician associates… They don’t seem to be going awfully well. But the vaccine rollout, led by the NHS, is going great. Is there anything we can learn there?”
There might be a momentary flicker. But then I wonder if Boris Johnson throws his hands in the air and says: “Well, as I’ve said, we’ve done everything we can. Anyway, back to cutting universal credit…”
I lost another person this week. She was a woman I had desperately tried to help in the past, a victim of historical abuses. Later in her life, that trauma had led her to chronic mental health issues, which manifested as other conditions. She was 48 when she got COVID-19 and died.
She had tried to get help. I had tried to get her placed in services, in any kind of support. But it was like trying to find water in the desert. For years, the public health funding that supports services like those dealing with substance misuse, or community mental health services, has been degraded. That degradation left her and me empty-handed.
By the time she died, she was no longer at risk of abuse. She had a loving husband and family. But the economy we had as we went into the COVID-19 crisis turned her into a victim in a new way. Because the abuses that had harmed her were no longer an immediate threat, she was no longer able to get support. Services for victims of domestic and sexual violence – stretched ever-more thinly over the last decade – simply cannot afford to support historical victims as we would like.
As for access to mental health services, these too were limited and thin on the ground. Both she and her family’s need were simply not acute enough to count. This was not an unusual case. I deal with many very ill people who simply are not ill enough to get any help.
When the cabinet sit around and reflect, I hope they ask themselves whether the decisions they took before the crisis have contributed to the awful experience our country has had. The repeated dither and delay throughout the crisis and the decision to lift restrictions too quickly and block lockdown last September have been disastrous.
However, the foundations of our country, the resilience of our institutions, the security of our economy: they had all been ground down long before COVID-19 knocked them over.
As the health experts at the King’s Fund think tank put it: “Despite repeated promises to strengthen public health and prevention, government funding for local authority public health budgets has been substantially cut in recent years. Even with a recent uplift, the public health grant in 2020/21 was 22 per cent lower per head in real terms compared to 2015/16.” Put simply, the running down of health services left us on the cliff edge, and our country badly exposed to the virus.
During the past year we have learnt what we truly value. In this pandemic, we have clapped our carers and seen a new-found appreciation for the key workers who have got us through this crisis. We have made huge sacrifices to protect people we will never meet. At a time of horrendous death tolls and economic cost, we have also seen the best of the British people. We cannot squander that and return to the business as usual where we leave people who need help in a desperate situation.
I wonder if, around that cabinet table, they ever wonder about the decade of decisions that their party took, which took us, our health services, our schools – and for many of us, our lives – right to the very cliff edge. We deserve better and that’s what we have to strive for.
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