Anthony Hilton: Cutting back too quickly on the cleaners makes a real mess of everything

The population of Iceland is one of the most content in the world

There is a trade association in this country for almost every part of the economy including, would you believe, contract cleaners. I know because on Friday I was at its annual meeting in the Savoy Hotel.

Many businesses say they are a barometer of the wider economy but contract cleaning has a better claim than most, if only for the rather depressing reason that it is one of the first things executives  look to cut when times get tough.

Executives don’t actually go so far as to dispense with having their premises cleaned but they always seem to think there will be another firm which will do it cheaper. When that does not work they have the cleaners in less frequently or pay for a quick tidy-up rather than a deep-clean service.

As a result  the industry has taken its share of the pain since the economy turned down. But in common with the Governor of the Bank of England its members did seem to see signs of improvement. Indeed, given what they have been through, the mood was reasonably cheerful.

Actually, the number one talking point was a new book which highlights the unforeseen consequences of the austerity programme.* The book has mined official statistics and finds that cuts in these basic unsung services have led to alarming rises in HIV in countries such as Greece, increases in the number of suicides and a surge in a whole range of illnesses in between.

This caused particular alarm because this country has cut back  its programme of deep cleaning hospitals  – the one brought in a few years ago to try to reverse the alarming rise in infections.

What the book shows, however, is that it does not have to be like this. It is the rushed and undiscriminating bluntness of an austerity drive which does much of the damage. Better-thought-through cuts in, for example, Scandinavia have achieved the required savings but largely avoided adverse outcomes.

Most remarkable of all is Iceland, which went out of its way to protect its citizens in the economic collapse after its banking crash. Not only has growth bounced back but the population has regained its ranking as one of the most content in the world.

Perhaps it is time our politicians took their cues from cleaners rather than taxi drivers.

* The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu

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