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People's Covid Inquiry. Photo: Keep our NHS Public

People's Covid Inquiry. Photo: Keep our NHS Public

The first session of the People’s Covid Inquiry shines a light on a decade of austerity which has stripped down the NHS and increased health inequalities, reports Karen McDougall

On the evening of 24 February, as total deaths reached 135,000 and Matt Hancock insisted there had been sufficient PPE despite swathes of evidence to the contrary, the People’s Inquiry held its first session.  In lieu of the government’s unwillingness to submit to a formal inquiry, the People’s Inquiry has been called by Keep Our NHS Public and will take place virtually over four months.

The eight fortnightly sessions will each scrutinise the UK’s Covid response from a different perspective: the government’s response; the zero-Covid approach; the impact the pandemic has had upon the general public, as well as upon frontline and key workers; and the role that inequality, discrimination and increasing NHS privatisation has had upon the way the pandemic has played out in the UK.

The first session began with examining how well-prepared the NHS was to cope with a pandemic.  Jo Goodman, who co-founded the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group following the death of her father, spoke about how the NHS 111 Covid service was contracted out to a private organisation and staffed by civilians with little or no medical or healthcare experience. 

She detailed how callers were told to look for symptoms that are not applicable to all communities, or how decisions to send paramedic assistance were delayed, resulting in deaths from late hospital admission, or from not being sent to hospital at all.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, author of the 2010 Marmot Review, spoke about health inequity and what he considers to be a lost decade since the report’s publication. He described how the Conservative-led government’s move to austerity politics increased inequality, thereby increasing health inequity, particularly among some socio-economic groups and amongst the BAME community.

Holly Turner, a learning disabilities nurse, described how working conditions, staffing levels and resource availability have worsened over the last ten years and the impact this has had upon the families of people with learning disabilities, who frequently bear the brunt of health inequity. 

She the spoke about how the pandemic has brutally exposed her patients, who are experiencing significant negative impacts upon their mental health.  Holly also expressed the frustration many NHS staff felt at being clapped every week when they have spent years screaming into the void about intolerable working conditions and how this is affecting their ability to give good patient care.

Professor Gabriel Scally discussed how multiple restructures and changes within the NHS had weakened its ability to respond to the pandemic, despite the warnings of Operation Cygnus.  Also examined was the decision to scrap Public Health England during a pandemic and how Professor Scally feels this is not only inappropriate at such an inopportune time, but that it has led to decreasing levels of transparency at a time when this is most vital.

The final speaker was John Lister, who contrasted the increased investment of the Labour government of 1997-2010 with the austerity policies of the Conservative government that has, in his view, made the financial position of NHS trusts untenable.  Also discussed was the impact that austerity has had on local government who are forced to take up the slack for bed closures and the failures of the privatised social care areas.

The session highlighted several ways in which the lack of support from the government has led to a health and social care system that was at the point of collapse before the pandemic.  Despite incredible work in the hardest and most unacceptable circumstances, the NHS is more at threat than ever. 

Those who seek to continue to privatise healthcare will almost certainly use any perceived failings of the NHS to argue that it is no longer fit for purpose. Those of us who value public healthcare must be prepared to resist changes and reverse decisions already made.

The Inquiry will report its findings and recommendations and the summary is to be disseminated widely via various channels.  In the meantime, the existence of the Inquiry and the individual sessions needs to be publicised widely.  It is being supported by organisations like NHS Staff Voices and the People’s Assembly as well as Counterfire, whose members are sharing the sessions widely on social media. 

We need to continue to keep the momentum up.  If enough public pressure can be built in support of the Inquiry, and when its final report is published, maybe, just maybe, the government will have to take notice.

Register for future sessions of the People’s Covid Inquiry here.

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