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Sun 20 September 2020
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With the UK officially now in recession, and carrying the worst COVID-19 death rate per million, Mike Buckley argues that the rot set into the British state years ago

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That the UK has entered its worst recession since comparable records began in 1955 and has suffered the worst economic downturn of any European or comparable developed nation brutally exposes the catastrophe of Boris Johnson’s Government.

GDP fell by 20.4% quarter on quarter, with widespread contractions across all sectors. Lost output since the end of 2019 is double that in the US.

The Prime Minister’s decision to introduce a Coronavirus lockdown later and less harshly than the UK’s European peers meant that it took longer to get infections under control, with a longer period of shutdown required – and an extended deep freeze for the economy.

Even as restrictions have been lifted, economic activity has been slower to pick up than in the rest of Europe, at least in part due to public distrust of the Government’s test and trace system, which has been far more successful in lining the pockets of outsourcing giants than it has tracing potential virus carriers.

Economic activity has been slower to pick up than in the rest of Europe… in part due to public distrust of the Government’s test and trace system, which has been far more successful in lining the pockets of outsourcing giants than it has tracing potential virus carriers

Johnson can add ‘worst economic performance’ to his coveted title of worst COVID-19 death rate per million – a grim track record far from the hopes he had earlier in the year of ‘levelling up’ the UK economy to benefit parts of the country seen to have lost out in recent decades. Many of these regions voted Conservative for the first time last December, believing that investment would follow along with new nurses, police officers and hospitals.

Johnson now talks of an autumn reset but, with public finances so badly affected and Chancellor Rishi Sunak already talking of postponing the budget in the event of a second wave of the Coronavirus, he may have to wait.


Cut to the Bone

The pandemic has exposed far more than the misjudgements and questionable talents of the Johnson administration. Britain has been duped by successive governments while its resources, strengths and resilience have been privatised and cut by austerity into a shadow of their former selves.

Britain was sick long before the pandemic arrived.

Ten years ago, those who argued for caution were laughed at by George Osborne and David Cameron for failing to believe that deep cuts to the public realm would make Britain stronger. Yet it is those who called for caution who have been proved right as the pandemic has ripped through care homes and employment figures. A once capable country has failed to get the basics right – not just for days and weeks, but for months on end.

Austerity, the Andrew Lansley NHS reforms, the drastic reduction of funding provided to local government and individual decisions to cut costs such as the choice to no longer pay for a national supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) in preparedness for a pandemic have cost the UK dearly.

The consequences have been catastrophic. The NHS has been stretched and fragmented. Outside London, the economy has become unproductive, the social care system a national disgrace and the Civil Service a shadow of its former self. The Brexit debate deepened tensions between regions and values groups, leaving the country split down the middle on almost every issue, with Leavers and Remainers locked in battle over the country’s identity, story and direction.

Much of the population live with poverty and insecurity that started with the financial crisis and has never been resolved, only exacerbated by increasingly parlous public services. The wealth of London, Europe’s wealthiest region, disguises poverty almost everywhere else.

The UK has five regions poorer than anywhere in France and Germany. If it was part of the US, it would be in the top eight poorest states. It is poorer than Australia and Canada, and far poorer than Ireland, which was among the poorest parts of UK when it left.


Stripped Back

Lost government competence was evident long before the Coronavirus arrived.

The past decade has seen an extending list of policy failures and miscalculations, including the near miss of Scottish independence in 2014 and the woeful handling of Brexit, which will bring yet more political fragmentation and economic cost at the end of the year.

Johnson would argue that his Government exists to resolve the challenge faced by the British state: that he will level up, invest where Cameron and Theresa May cut, and restore the Civil Service to its former glory. But the omens are not good.

Johnson may talk change but the evidence of the pandemic is that his ability to translate rhetoric into reality is minimal. He has repeatedly announced that test and trace and other measures will be “world-beating”, but as Labour Leader Keir Starmer said in mid-May, “effective will do”. Three months on, even “effective” remains far off.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor has been celebrated for his Coronavirus furlough scheme but, bar one productive week back in March, he has done little but watch events – with no solutions to the recession Britain is now in.

On a fundamental level, the virus has exposed Britain’s poverty in more ways than one, attacking the weak, vulnerable and exposed. Most tragic of all has been the loss of so many care home residents, disproportionate numbers of black and ethnic minority NHS and key workers and others whose lives would have been saved had the system performed better. News of the recession, brutal as it is, merely underscores the country’s plight and its dire need of reform.

Just as the pandemic has exposed the social care crisis and the weakness of an economy so dependent on consumer spending, so it has exposed the weakness of the country’s governance. As Ian Boyd, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has said: “There has been a major systemic failure… we need a complete revamp of our Government structure because it’s not fit for purpose.”

If the UK is to recover it will have to face up to its follies and its failures. This means more than railing at Johnson or wanting to see him replaced by Sunak or even Starmer.

Britain’s illness runs deep, and its solutions must too.

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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