I wonder what the Labour party will use as its scare slogan at the next election? After all, the usual one of ‘[Insert number] weeks/days/minutes to save the NHS’ may not work next time. Not that it worked every time before. But it has long been the favourite attack line of a British left that likes to portray the Conservative party as so ravenously right-wing that whenever it comes to power it wastes not a moment in dismantling Attlee’s post-war creation.
And yet, although the Conservative party has been in power fairly often since 1945, not once has it managed to dismantle, privatise, or otherwise sell off the NHS. Its tendency, rather, has been to increase spending, ring-fence spending and more. If the masterplan remained the same then the party has been uniquely inept at its implementation. And while believable, it seems more likely that the Conservative party long ago made its peace with the welfare state and that the Labour party has acted with a degree of disingenuity at recent general elections. For shame.
The reason why the line may particularly not work next time is not just that Matt Hancock will not appear in public without his rainbow badge. Rather it will be because by 2024 it will have become plain that in 2020 a Conservative government ran up one of the biggest bills in history in order to save the NHS. Not from collapse, but from the indignities and worse that so visibly affected parts of the Italian health service at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.
Three things at least have become plain over recent weeks. The first is that if the decision to go into this lockdown was taken in order to avert Italian-like scenes in our hospitals then that has been achieved. Thanks to the success of the lockdown, the Nightingale hospitals have joined the UK workforce in furlough. The second thing that has become plain is that the virus is both worse than some people on the right spent the early part of the crisis pretending, and at the same time not as bad as we first feared. There is no point in being blasé about this, but this fact can be noted in at least two ways: that the mortality figures do not reach the extreme ends of the earliest projections, whatever the containment policies of the country in question, and that people who have got the virus have been pulling through it (even without hospitalisation) better than was feared at the outset.
Which brings me to the third thing that has now become clear. That is the vast cost of this ducking exercise. With almost half the workforce now effectively in the employ of the state, ‘World War II-sized bill for tackling virus’ was just one of the headlines that went wafting by last week. Yet the point of running up this amount of debt in the 1940s was not just that the threat was existential, but that we did not expect such expenditure of blood and treasure to be demanded again. Can anyone say the same with the virus? China has gifted the world at least three such gifts in the past decade or so. Must we run up a ‘World War II-sized debt’ every time China infects us?
The meeting place of the declining medical threat and increasing economic threat points to one inexorable fact, which is that this state of suspended animation — and consequences — cannot go on. If the virus is not as bad as the bods at Imperial College first expected then it cannot justify the ongoing containment of the population. At least not all of it.
It is true that the virus seems to have plenty of anomalies we still don’t understand. But while the elderly and those with underlying health conditions do seem to be at risk, the young and healthy do not. And while the vulnerable must continue to be protected, what is not sustainable is for a workforce at almost zero risk to be kept in its rented accommodation, and further immiserated, due to it. I can already see the books they will write, these millennials and younger. ‘The Boomers’ last act’, they will call it. A generation they were already accusing of having accumulated all the wealth will be said — as their last act — to have forced the majority of the younger population not just into poverty but into chastity in order to keep a tiny section of the boomer party going a little while longer. A future Margaret Atwood will have a great time collecting royalties off this.
As with our current Margaret Atwood, I’m not certain it’s as straightforward as that. What I do know is that a way out of the current predicament becomes an economic necessity long before our world becomes risk-free. It will start with those people willing to take the small risk of returning to work. And while the poorer will most likely be forced into taking more risks, I expect that, as things drag on, more and more people are going to accept that just as there are many elements of risk in our lives, so Covid is one of them. If not then it seems as though we are in one of those moments of history where what you took to be the main event turns out to be the prelude.
This tussle is going on in all of us at present. But as the health risks become clearer, so do the economic ones. And while we have a considerable chance of ducking the first, no one has any chance of ducking the second. We have given the health service an awful lot throughout its history, never more than in this year. But the NHS exists to serve the public. The public does not exist solely to serve the NHS.
We never did face the threat to the health service that the Labour left pretended. But from small business owners all the way up to government workers, we do now face its counter-force. ‘X number of days to save the economy.’ Were I a wily new Labour leader, I think I might get working on that line, and deploy it against the Conservative party whenever we’re next allowed out to vote.