David Cameron defended austerity as “the right economic policy”, but said it was a “mistake” for his government to focus too heavily on preparations for a flu pandemic rather than one like Covid-19.
The former prime minister faced an hour-long grilling as he became the first politician to appear before the official Covid inquiry.
Giving evidence before inquiry chair Baroness Hallett, Mr Cameron said there was an argument to be had about whether austerity was “the right economic policy or the wrong economic policy”.
He said: “I think it was the right economic policy.”
And Mr Cameron added: “The real problem was time spent quizzing the experts on what potential pandemics were coming and preparing for those in the right way.”
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said Mr Cameron is “in denial about the huge damage caused by his austerity policies”.
“The evidence is clear that the cuts he imposed massively damaged the readiness and resilience of our public services,” said general secretary Paul Nowak.
But Mr Cameron said you “cannot separate” the need to keep government borrowing under control from the funding of the health service. “If you lose control of your debt, and you lose control of your deficit, and you use control of your economy, you end up cutting the health service,” he said.
Labour’s shadow health spokesperson Wes Streeting said the Conservatives had “hollowed out the NHS ahead of the pandemic”.
“It’s not that the Conservatives didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining, they dismantled the roof and ripped up the floorboards,” he added.
Focusing on the failure to anticipate a coronavirus-style pandemic, Mr Cameron told the inquiry on Monday that “many consequences” followed from the focus on pandemic flu rather than other respiratory illnesses.
And Mr Cameron added that the time spent focusing on flu during contingency planning was “the thing I keep coming back to” when considering the “horrors of the Covid pandemic”.
“I think it was a mistake not to look more at the range of different types of pandemic,” Mr Cameron said, giving evidence under oath.
He added: “Much more time was spent on pandemic flu and the dangers of pandemic flu rather than on potential pandemics of other, more respiratory diseases, like Covid turned out to be.
“And you know, I think this is so important because so many consequences follow from that.”
He said he had been “wrestling with” the issue, adding: “But that’s where I keep coming back to is, so much time was spent on a pandemic influenza and that was seen as the greatest danger – and we had very bad years for flu so it is a big danger…
“But why wasn’t more time and more questions asked about what turned out to be the pandemic that we faced?
“It’s very hard to answer why that’s the case. And I’m sure this public inquiry is going to spend a lot of time on that.”
He was questioned on his own warning back in 2015 that the Ebola outbreak was a “wake-up call” to the emergence of a “more aggressive and more difficult to contain” virus.
He said that his government did look at pandemics other than flu, such as Mers and Sars.
“So I think that wasn’t a failing, I think the failing was not to ask more questions about asymptomatic transmission, highly infectious… what turned out to be the pandemic we had,” he added.
He questioned whether there had been “adequate follow-up to some of the work”.
The inquiry heard the witness statement from Sir Oliver Letwin, who was a Cabinet Office minister from 2010 to 2016 and in charge of resilience under Mr Cameron.
Sir Oliver said that “in retrospect” it may “seem surprising” that his reviews did not cover the response to pandemic flu in the UK.
“I now believe, however, that it might have been helpful if I had delved into the pandemic influenza risks myself,” he said.
“This is not because I believe such a review would have been likely to lead to any significant improvements in our preparedness for a pandemic flu itself, but rather because it might have led me to question whether we were adequately prepared to deal with the risks of forms of respiratory disease other than pandemic influenza.”
Mr Cameron was being questioned by barrister Kate Blackwell KC rather than the inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith, who has said he knows the former prime minister.
The first phase of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry is examining whether the UK was sufficiently prepared for the pandemic.
The British Medical Association representing doctors has accused Mr Cameron and his ministers of allowing the NHS to get into a “parlous state”.
Ahead of the hearing, council chair Professor Philip Banfield wrote: “I have seen first-hand the damage wrought by years of austerity and a failure to prioritise the nation’s health.
“The UK was severely on the back foot when Covid took hold, and this proved disastrous – for the doctors I represent and the millions who suffered at the hands of the virus.”
On Tuesday, Mr Cameron’s chancellor, George Osborne, will give evidence, as well as Sir Oliver.
Current chancellor and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt is due on Wednesday, as is deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden.
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