Isabel Hardman

Ministers can no longer ignore the problems Covid has exposed

Ministers can no longer ignore the problems Covid has exposed
Boris Johnson (Photo: Andrew Parsons / 10 Downing Street)
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Tuesday's cabinet meeting discussed the usual topics of Covid and the Brexit transition period, but at the end, Boris Johnson told ministers he had asked Sir Michael Barber to conduct a rapid review of government delivery 'to ensure it remains focused, effective and efficient'. Downing Street's readout of the meeting said the Prime Minister told his colleagues that 'it remains important to ensure that work continues to ensure that we build back better from the pandemic'.

Barber, currently chair of the Office for Students, set up the first 'delivery unit' in Downing Street in 2001, and has even written a book on How to Run a Government. He will be examining how No. 10 can deliver its domestic policies over the next few years. And he will surely come across a number of issues that have become political rows in this pandemic, but which have been bubbling away for a very long time. It shouldn't have taken Covid to expose them, but now that it has, it would be difficult for ministers to justify continuing to ignore them.

The most keenly-felt problem at present is staffing shortages in the NHS. There has been no government workforce strategy for the NHS since 2003 — when Barber was still working for Blair's Labour government. And yet there is a shortage of around 84,000 full-time staff; particularly nurses, midwives and health visitors. The pandemic has stretched the health service to its limits, with staff being redeployed to try to cover shortages in critical care. The backlog in treatment for non-Covid conditions will take an equally Herculean effort to clear. On top of this, individual staff have been left with severe burnout and mental health problems from trying to work without sufficient support and because of the severity and length of the pandemic. The workforce issues the health service was already experiencing are going to get much worse and so 'building back better' cannot be a vague aspiration — it is urgent.

Similarly, one of the biggest disasters of this pandemic has been in care homes. The care sector has long been overlooked politically and Covid has shown that this is not without cost. Johnson said last summer that the government was 'finalising' plans to reform social care funding. It has been long enough now for Barber's review to look at what on earth is holding up these plans and to work out how this government can be the one that finally, after over a decade of wrangling, delivers a sustainable settlement that means care isn't the poor relation of the NHS.

Then there's the row over the food handed out to children on free school meals. James Kirkup covers the strange lack of interest in this issue from some quarters here, but what we have known for at least a decade that some families are struggling to get enough food to last them a week. Politicians, meanwhile, have spent ten years arguing about whose fault the rise in food banks is. The demand for these emergency food parcels has not gone away and has been highlighted once again by Covid. There will always be families that fall into crisis, always children who need free school meals. But food poverty has ended up being an issue that is talked about a great deal, with far less action.

Domestic abuse has also risen up the political agenda in the past few years, but it took the pandemic to highlight how hard it is for many victims to leave their abusers — and then to find anywhere safe to flee to. Despite ministers boasting about 'cash boosts' for charities helping victims, the money offered so far doesn't even cover the huge rise in demand for services, let alone the gaping black hole in provision that existed long before Covid. On any one night, 90 women and the same number of children were being turned away from secure refuges because there was no room. Some would end up being housed in totally unsuitable 'bed and breakfast' accommodation (an absurd term that suggests a twee cottage with bedspreads and full English fry ups each morning as opposed to the grimy, unsafe reality), others go back to their abusers. Some are killed. Ministers have known about this for years, and have listened for years to pleas from the sector for a sustainable funding model. Even with the Domestic Abuse Bill going through parliament at the moment, there are still fears that demand is not being met with sufficient funding.

None of these problems will disappear when people are no longer being told to stay at home, when children return to school, and when the posters telling people to keep their distance have finally been taken down. The pandemic has given ministers far less of an excuse to ignore these long-term problems. A government that really delivers will have to tackle all of them.