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Comment | The cost of Covid: Britain cannot afford more austerity

Chronic underfunding of public services, and years of cuts have left working-class communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. We cannot afford a repeat of austerity, we need an alternative, writes Taj Ali.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2020 14:12 - 0 Comments

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The Covid-19 pandemic has severely damaged the British economy, with the UK’s GDP predicted to shrink by over 10% by the end of the year. This will have lasting implications for the country. According to research conducted by Paul Gregg, one of the UK’s leading labour-market experts, up to one million young people could face a joblessness crisis in a matter of weeks. In parallel, many industries – particularly in the travel, hospitality and leisure sectors — are struggling to recover from the blow dealt by pandemic.

The government has and will continue to borrow enormous amounts of money in order to offset the costs to the British economy. Eventually, this money will have to be paid back, but at whose expense? As the UK plunges into recession; working-class communities like mine are still reeling from the impact of drastic cuts to public services. Further austerity down the line will only make things worse.

The pandemic has already disproportionately impacted working-class communities. Low-income families have been hit hardest: A study conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group shows the pandemic has severely damaged living standards for low-income families, with eight in ten of respondents admitting they are in a worse financial position than before the pandemic.

Austerity is not the solution; it is part of the problem. Ten years on from the coalition government’s first austerity budget, we find ourselves in another moment of national crisis. According to the institute of public policy research, austerity has ripped the resilience out of health and social care, leaving us ill-prepared for the consequences of a global pandemic. Indeed, chronic under-funding of public services has almost certainly hardened the blow dealt by the pandemic.

This blow has been felt by communities at the local level across the country. In my hometown, Luton, our local council is on the brink of financial failure, which has forced it to make a series of cuts to public services in order to avoid bankruptcy. Since 2010, the government has cut grants to councils from £32.2 billion to £4.5 billion as part of its national austerity programme. In the absence of adequate government support, councils have increasingly turned to other sources of income to fund vital services. For Luton Borough Council, this has meant heavy reliance on London Luton Airport to fund local services.

Among all local authorities in the country, Luton is the second-most reliant upon commercial revenue for its budget. The financial misfortune the pandemic has inflicted on Luton Airport has had a knock-on effect on the local council budget. The council is considering making drastic cuts to the tune of £22 million, including cuts to vital children’s services which many families rely on.

Despite this national emergency, our government has continued to give inadequate support to local councils, and it is the most vulnerable in society who have had to pay the price. A decade of austerity has already stripped millions from the council’s budget and further cuts to Luton’s social care and mental health services will have severe implications for communities already reeling from the impact of the pandemic.

A 2017 British Medical Journal study found that austerity was linked to the deaths of 120,000 people. The justification for austerity is based on the pretense that it is an economic necessity imposed by the absence of any viable alternative; however, this is far from true. It is a conscious political choice to make the most vulnerable in society bear the brunt of the cost of a supposed economic recovery, whilst the most privileged in society remain largely unaffected. With corporate tax avoidance costing the British economy billions every year, it is abundantly clear that cuts to public services are not due to a money problem but to a priorities problem.

With just 6% of the UK public wanting a return to the pre-pandemic economy, there is a strong appetite for an alternative economic programme. This pandemic has demonstrated how vital public services are to people in this country, and we need a path to economic recovery which reflects that. In order to reduce the risk of future pandemics, the government must provide strong investments in public services, particularly in health and social care. Our government must also address structural economic inequalities which have become increasingly apparent during this pandemic, and increasingly exacerbated by it.

Chronic under-funding of public services, and years of cuts have left working-class communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. We cannot afford a repeat of austerity; we need an alternative.

Taj Ali

Taj Ali is a political activist and freelance writer. He recently graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA in History and Politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Taj_Ali1

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