The NHS is getting us through this crisis. Once it’s over, the people will remember exactly who tried to destroy it

There will be some hard thinking about attempts to reduce the service to a ‘safety net’ prior to the current pandemic. It was allowed the bare minimum and that won’t be overlooked

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 19 March 2020 13:38
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NHS England ramps up Coronavirus testing

The coronavirus emergency is often spoken of as a war, as indeed it is. Like all wars, it is asking a lot of people, it is reminding us all of how much we rely on “key workers” and how much we take many of our public services and our way of life for granted. When we emerge from this crisis, the world will feel very different and there will be a lasting public impact.

Wars leave a lasting social and political legacy. By the looks of it, so will the war against Covid-19. The welfare state is making a bit of a comeback. Frankly, for some time now the social security system was something that most of the population didn’t give much thought to. Now, there is talk of another million on the dole. People are suddenly facing up to being thrown back on their own scant resources. They are realising just how useless the modern welfare safety net can be the £94 per week for statutory sick pay being the emblem of all the injustices now bundled into the dysfunctional Universal Credit system.

Even those fortunate enough to hang on to their jobs will be having second thoughts about an economic system that can see you go from full time, if precarious, employment “just about managing” to eviction and homelessness in a matter of weeks. How many Conservatives can be content to see people who have built up their own successful small business over decades pushed into poverty through no fault of their own? Or “rescued” via another huge debt loaded into their backs? There is a powerful sense of injustice around these shocking events.

The NHS will also come out of this renewed public respect. Even The Sun has got behind NHS staff in the way usually reserved for the armed forces, with an “I heart NHS” poster. I doubt any political party will ever dare to underfund the NHS again under the cover of “austerity” or “reform”. No ifs, no buts, the NHS will get the kit and the staff it needs. Suddenly we realise the inestimable value – and reliability – of a system of social insurance. There is no private insurance-based health system that could ever deal with an epidemic such as this. That is a crucial, abiding lesson of current events. We seem to have had enough of private affluence and public squalor.

I have to add a note of bitterness. Remember how, not so long ago, the same sections of the media now praising brave NHS medics were publishing all those stories about the inefficient, bloated wasteful health service with its greedy overpaid doctors, waiting lists and dirty wards? Remember the denials and spin during the election about the boy on the floor of a ward?

From some columnists’ half-baked accounts about the superbug and the like, you’d think that anyone was lucky to get out alive from a spell in an NHS hospital. There was lots of talk about reducing it to a “safety net” service for the poor who can’t afford health insurance. It was allowed the bare minimum, if that, to try to keep up with public expectations. Its inevitable failings were used to justify further cuts, thus setting the NHS up for more failure and justifying dismantlement and marketisation. The American system was lauded for its lavish care. The Europeans were set up as a model of competitive efficiency. Not so much now.

Much the same goes for the BBC. All of a sudden, a nation stuck at home worrying is turning to a gold standard, trusted source for facts, guidance and realistic reporting. The BBC will entertain the nation as it grinds through this crisis, with its box sets of brilliance, deprived as we are of sport, cinema, theatre and most firms of culture and diversion. Netflix doesn’t come close. The Beeb is even going to educate the kids. It has been temporarily relieved of its absurd obligation to act as an arm of the DWP, means-testing licences for the over-75s. I suspect that idea may be quietly dropped forever when this lousy war is over.

So we know now how much we rely on our under-appreciated, neglected public services, the welfare state and key workers. Things will change. Just as the Great War gave us votes for women and council housing, and the Second World War, the Beveridge report and the original welfare state, so now will this “war” yield some unexpected revolutions in attitudes and our way of life.

The British people aren’t turning socialist as such, but there will be some hard thinking. We see all too clearly there is such a thing as society and no substitute for bold state action. As people asked in 1945, if we can do all these things in War time, and borrow such huge sums, why not in peacetime? It’s all a bit too late for Jeremy Corbyn though.

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