George Osborne says 'austerity left Britain better prepared for pandemic' in Covid inquiry appearance

20 June 2023, 15:58

George Osborne who gave evidence at the Covid inquiry
George Osborne who gave evidence at the Covid inquiry. Picture: Alamy

By StephenRigley

Former Chancellor George Osborne has defended the austerity measures he oversaw during the Conservative government's years of spending cuts, as he appeared before the Covid inquiry.

Mr Osborne rejected the criticisms against the austerity era and insisted it actually left Britain better prepared to withstand the pandemic.

Inquiry barrister Kate Blackwell KC asked him: “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 said: “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, who was chancellor from 2010 to 2016 said he needed to repair the “seriously impaired public finances” after the 2008 financial crisis.

He added: “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.”

George Osborne after giving evidence to the Covid inquiry
George Osborne after giving evidence to the Covid inquiry. Picture: Alamy

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Echoing former Prime Minister David Cameron's comments to the inquiry on Monday that the government had only planned for a pandemic caused by flu, not other respiratory illnesses like coronavirus Mr Osborne said: “There was no planning in Britain – or indeed as far as I’m aware in France, Germany, the United States, or anywhere like that.

“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.”

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

Prior to the appearance of Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, the BMA said they must be “taken to task” at the inquiry over austerity-era decisions that “left us so unprepared” for the pandemic.

The UK Covid-19 inquiry will examine how prepared the UK was for the pandemic, meaning economic policies in the years leading up to the first outbreak will be taken into its wide remit.

The inquiry is currently in its first module, where chairwoman Baroness Hallett is looking at the UK's preparation for a pandemic.

Jeremy Hunt, the current Chancellor who served as health secretary in the austerity-era government of the 2010s, is also set to appear at the inquiry.

England's chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance are also scheduled to appear.