As I write this, the UK death toll from coronavirus stands at 35,341, having overtaken Italy earlier this month as the worst in Europe. Weeks after the initial clap, people are still standing outside their front doors and on balconies to clap their support for the NHS. However, many were happy to vote for a party who have routinely underfunded it for over a decade. Support and investment in the NHS should be long term and undulating, not sudden and just in response to an pandemic.
When this is over, the voting public should remember who underfunded the NHS for a decade and rendered it incapacitated to cope with this pandemic. Since 2010, under the Conservatives, funding of the NHS has been the lowest in percentage terms since its inception in 1948; budgets rose by just 1.5% per year, compared with the figure of 3.7% in 1948. As a result, this has meant a drastic loss in NHS beds, decreasing from 171,000 to 140,000 – the lowest number of hospital beds per head of population. This has also affected the abundance of critical care units and their capacity.
During this pandemic, it has been stated that those who go into critical care only have a 50% chance of survival. Policies of austerity have affected the emergency services, including police and fire staff – there are now 21,000 fewer police officers than there were in 2010, and the fire service has been cut by 18%.
Austerity – policies that created short term gain, and long-term deprivation – have completely decimated the NHS and rendered it unable to cope with an unprecedented crisis like this one. As Poly Toynbee argued in The Guardian, Tory politicians have left the country ‘defenceless’ in protecting the public and workers during this pandemic.
The NHS before this pandemic was in the worst possible state for dealing with routine procedures, thus it was never in a fit state to take on a pandemic. But it should have been. Having a health service is not just thinking about the immediate but planning for the long term. A pandemic of this proportion should have been something we had the capacity to prepare for.
The Tory Party, and especially Boris Johnson, love to parade around their appreciation for the NHS. But at the same time, this party has cripplingly underfunded it for a decade – there has been a £700 million reduction in public health funding since 2015, which has shattered every hospital, emergency department and GP surgery across the country.
In addition, the UK population has consistently voted for this same party without acknowledging those responsible for decimating the service they know and love. For eight weeks and counting, the public will clap for the NHS but in four years, they will probably vote for major NHS cuts and privatisation by casting a vote for the Conservatives.
The crisis in the NHS has been longstanding but this virus has exposed it at its worst. In April during the peak of the virus just 2,000 NHS staff were tested for the virus. At this time of writing, at least 100 have died from contracting the virus, just from doing their job. And disproportionately, most were from BME backgrounds, including Thomas Harvey, who had inadequate protection and subsequently died from the virus after treating an infected patient. Harvey’s daughter Tamira told the BBC, ‘if he had just had the right equipment we wouldn’t be in this predicament and it wouldn’t have escalated in the way it did’. His case hasn’t been the only one.
The prime minister and the cabinet continually present the public and NHS with false promises. Out of the 390 million pieces of PPE that were ordered to the UK, 400,000 gowns failed to pass UK standards. Matt Hancock’s 200,000 a day test target was only ever met on one day and even this is arguable, after including figures from home kits that were sent out, but never completed. In May, the government failed to reach the 100,000 tests per day, and more strain will be placed on this as Hancock announces anyone over the age of five displaying symptoms will be eligible for a test.
Additionally, the “test, track and trace” system of effectively containing the virus, as seen in Germany who have had a considerably lower death toll, has never been in operation despite enduring ten weeks of this pandemic and over two months of lockdown. Johnson promises this service will be up and running by June, but can we really believe anything he says at this point?
We have a government and vast swathes of the UK public who have so vehemently shown their support of an NHS during this pandemic but have bitterly prevented it from gaining proper funding for the last decade. Call me out for politicising the virus, but this is a matter of politics. If you stand and clap for the NHS, remember who was responsible for its downfall. And remember, austerity was a political choice, and it has contributed towards a healthcare system so unable to cope with this pandemic.
A clap will not fix the NHS or secure frontline workers with the protection they need, it merely negates those responsible for its downfall. Clap if you must, but think about those in power who are responsible for its condition and consequently the way we have dealt with this pandemic.