The country is facing two profoundly serious crises, one of which is already upon us with the other scheduled to arrive within months. The first is the extraordinary collapse of staffing numbers in essential public services, most notably the NHS, and the other is the imminent explosion in the cost of living. Both of these are the subject of exhaustive public discussion and media attention much of which tends to treat them as forms of natural catastrophe which had, in the manner of a Greek tragedy, simply fallen out of the sky onto the heads of our hapless generation – the sort of events that insurance companies call “acts of God”.
In other words, all of this is terrible bad luck: our era has simply drawn a bad hand and we must live through the consequences as best we can. Governments are flailing in their attempts to cope but there are no obvious remedies to hand.
So, for example, a cursory reading of the coverage of the staffing emergency which has hit hospital and primary healthcare services is simply that it is an inevitable consequence of the omicron variant of Covid which spreads so rapidly that it is now infecting unprecedented numbers of NHS employees.
But that is not really true, is it? It is not omicron which is responsible for all these staff absences since the illness it causes in healthy people generally amounts to no more than a mild cold – when it produces symptoms at all. Many of the huge numbers of staff unable to report for work are not staying away because they are sick but because they have been ordered to isolate if they test positive for Covid, even if they are completely asymptomatic.
It is government policy on Covid, which was devised to deal with previous, more severe variants, rather than the virus itself, that is responsible for the NHS being under what ministers describe as “great pressure”. Even though the period in which Omicron – particularly when it is asymptomatic – is transmissible, is thought to be much shorter, staff are still legally obliged to isolate for seven days following a positive test. Make no mistake, the unprecedented level of staff absence which is threatening to undermine the provision of national healthcare is the consequence of a government decision, not a tragic dictate of fate.
Political leaders are not helpless in this matter: they have as much power to determine official policy as they always have had. But now they are particularly exercised by the demands of self-interested lobbies who make conflicting (and sometimes self-contradictory) demands. One minute NHS bodies (and their unions) are demanding that staff stay at home when they test positive – and the next, they are declaring a national emergency over staff shortages.
This alarming confusion can only be resolved by clear government decision-making which must make use of the authority granted to it by democratic accountability. These are now political questions: they involve responsibilities for social priorities, economic planning and the distribution of national resources which only elected governments – not epidemiologists or mathematical modellers or NHS executives – may settle.
Then there is the crisis to come: the enormous rise in the cost of living, some elements of which can be seen as beyond the control of this – or any – current government. Increases in the price of imported fuel for energy can be attributed to the sudden resurgence of demand that followed the easing of the global pandemic. But what is about to happen to our population – the degree of pauperisation and, quite possibly, the life-threatening risk of unaffordable energy – will be much worse than it needs to have been.
The terrifying increases in energy bills for homes and industry (inevitably affecting the price of food and manufactured goods) which are to come will not be strictly proportional to the increased cost of fuel. They will be exacerbated by deliberate government policy: roughly a quarter of electricity charges go on green levies and environmental taxes which are designed both to subsidise sustainable energy development and to coerce customers into using less power.
The imposition of such punitive taxation on the use of energy was (and remains) a political decision. As we all now know, it is part of a conscious plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions: a government objective the costs of which the present governing party neglected to mention in the course of its election campaign.
As it happens, it will serve to exacerbate and prolong the damaging effects of what might otherwise have been a temporary price jump on world energy markets.
Combined with another political decision, to abandon our own natural reserves of energy supply (also in the cause of achieving net zero), it will guarantee the most severe possible effects of a difficult historical moment. What the Johnson Government seems to be considering as a way of mitigating these effects is old fashioned welfare support for the “least well-off”. If you really are so poor that you can’t afford to heat your home, you will be offered some sort of means-tested benefit to help pay your extortionate bills.
This is a classic poverty trap measure. Quite apart from the messy quagmire that means-testing always produces, it creates a disincentive to increase your earnings and unfairly penalises those who are just above the threshold for assistance, not to mention the millions of middle income households who will face serious reductions in their quality of life with rising taxes as well as energy costs.
Isn’t it time we had the real debate then? You don’t have to be a Covid or a Climate denier to argue with the decisions that are being taken in the name of those two horsemen of the apocalypse. The discussion we need to have is not whether the threats are real but how they should be addressed.
Instead of locking people up to deal with the former, and dismantling modern prosperity to address the latter, maybe we should consider how these problems can be managed as fairly and humanely as possible.
That’s what democratic politics is for, isn’t it?