Osborne rejects claims austerity depleted NHS ahead of coronavirus pandemic

Former chancellor George Osborne giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London (Screengrab/PA)
Former chancellor George Osborne giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London (Screengrab/PA)

George Osborne has rejected claims his austerity programme while chancellor depleted the NHS as he suggested his cuts better prepared Britain to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The Conservative former MP “completely” disputed the allegations at the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry from medics and unions that his cuts left health and social care in a “parlous state”.

Mr Osborne argued on Tuesday that the UK may not have had the financial scope to spend vast amounts to support the public through the crisis without austerity.

The chancellor between 2010 and 2016 conceded that his Treasury should have planned economic measures such as the furlough scheme needed in the pandemic.

George Osborne at the Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Former chancellor George Osborne giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London (Screengrab/PA)

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has told the inquiry that the “political choice” of austerity under prime minister David Cameron left the UK “hugely exposed to the pandemic”.

The British Medical Association has argued the cuts put the nation “severely on the back foot” as the first phase of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry examines whether proper preparations were made.

Mr Osborne argued that it was key to ensure that the economy after the “massive economic shock” of the 2008 financial crisis was able to “flex in a crisis”.

Inquiry barrister Kate Blackwell KC asked: “Do you agree, by the time Covid-19 hit the consequences of austerity were a depleted health and social care capacity and rising inequality in the UK?”

Mr Osborne replied: “Most certainly not, I completely reject that.

“I would say if we had not done that Britain would have been more exposed, not just to future things like the coronavirus pandemic, but indeed to the fiscal crisis which very rapidly followed in countries across Europe …”

Mr Osborne said he needed to repair the “seriously impaired public finances”.

“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,” he said.

In his written evidence, Mr Osborne argues that his action “had a material and positive effect on the UK’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Mr Cameron, who gave evidence on Monday, has already argued the cuts were “absolutely essential to get the British economy and British public finances back to health so you can cope with a future crisis”.

Mr Osborne conceded that the Treasury did not plan for an extended lockdown, but questioned whether such a plan would have led to a better furlough scheme anyway.

“There was no assumption that you would mandate that the population to stay at home for months and months on end so there was no planning for a lockdown,” he said.

Asked whose fault it was, he said that “I don’t think it’s particularly fair to apportion blame” when scientists were not “elevating” threat of such a virus spreading rapidly”.

But he accepted that “with hindsight” the Treasury should have developed a blueprint for such a health emergency.