They said we would ‘build back better’ after Covid. What breathtaking deceit | John Harris

Instead of rewarding us for our suffering, Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak are offering nothing but more hardship

The Covid-19 era is not yet over. The worst might have long since receded – though deaths linked to the virus go on – and for most of us, infection now means nothing more serious than a few days in bed. But the pandemic’s grim and complex legacy is becoming clearer, in continuing tragedies that still seem cruelly overlooked: the prevalence of long Covid, a stark crisis of mental health, and developmental problems among children who spent long months deprived of the most basic human experiences.

Partly because the NHS was so consumed by the pandemic, we now seem to be facing an upsurge in deaths from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes that were left undetected or untreated. Covid has hugely accelerated an exodus of adults from the workforce that is causing ministers no end of anxiety. More generally, millions of people are still living with the effects of two long years full of bereavement, fear and loneliness.

Trauma, as we all know, is only made worse if it festers in silence. But as the omertà on Brexit also proves, this is a country led by people who seemingly do not want us to talk about the most important aspects of the UK’s recent history in case it deepens their political problems. So we have not really been allowed to discuss the pandemic and its effects, apart from in the most inappropriate places.

Which brings us to Matt Hancock’s absurd tour of duty on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!: final proof, perhaps, that the kind of world imagined down the years by JG Ballard and the creators of Black Mirror is now a reality. Self-evidently, Hancock’s role in the pandemic is the only reason he is there, and the sole explanation for an opening spell in which viewers repeatedly selected him to face all those trials (a term that suddenly has a very surreal resonance). For the show not to acknowledge that would be a nonsense, which is why we have seen his fellow contestants asking him a few limited questions about his time as health secretary. But inevitably, loading the lightest of entertainment with themes it cannot possibly carry only highlights an awful vacuum: it is as if the people responsible decided to seize on one of partygate’s basic themes – frivolity and stupidity amid death – and extend it to a completely bizarre extreme.

Meanwhile, the government has served notice that almost none of the things we were promised during the pandemic’s worst periods are going to materialise. The country’s suffering, let us not forget, was meant to be honoured with a huge drive to “build back better”. To quote from a Boris Johnson speech made in the summer of 2020, the Covid crisis was “the moment to address the problems in our country that we have failed to tackle for decades”: the impossibility of our social care system, rising exasperation about how long it takes to see a GP, and more. He vowed to “double down on levelling up”. All this, he suggested, meant that the usual Tory attitude to public spending would have to be put on hold: “I just serve notice,” Johnson said, “that we will not be responding to this crisis with what people called austerity.”

But now look. Instead of being saluted and rewarded, we are suddenly being admonished and readied for even more hardship, and the plain fact that people will be paying more for less. “The furlough scheme, the vaccine rollout and the response of the NHS did our country proud – but they all have to be paid for,” said the dependably condescending Jeremy Hunt in last week’s autumn statement. Just as Brexit’s sunlit uplands evaporated, so has the comparatively modest prospect of at least some of the problems revealed by Covid being fixed: the consequence of all that pain, it seems, is even more of it.

Jeremy Hunt meets pupils at St Jude’s Church of England Primary School.
Jeremy Hunt meets pupils at St Jude’s Church of England primary school. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Despite what the pandemic’s legacy means for schools and the NHS and raging inflation, increases over the next two years in health and schools spending in England, which excludes sixth forms and FE colleges, will be comparatively trifling. The long-overdue changes to the social care system proposed by Andrew Dilnot have been postponed by another two years. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is facing Whitehall’s largest reduction in post-2025 spending. Local councils, which worked so hard to help their communities through the worst of times, are facing financial gaps sometimes even worse than during the Cameron-Osborne years, which is saying something. There is also the huge issue of public sector pay, and the hypocrisy about so-called key workers crystallised in a slogan associated with looming strikes by nurses: “Claps don’t pay the bills”. Those words convey a bitter resentment, and it will only increase.

Perhaps Hunt’s one meaningful acknowledgment of the social damage the pandemic highlighted was the decision to uprate working-age benefits in line with inflation. But we should also bear in mind what he said about “a sharp increase in economically inactive working-age adults since the start of the pandemic”, and its context. Sanctioning people on benefits – in other words, threatening them with hunger and destitution – was effectively suspended during the first phase of the Covid crisis, but has now come roaring back: whereas in December 2019 the monthly sanctions figure was about 15,000, the opening months of this year saw a peak of nearly four times that number. When Hunt says he wants hundreds of thousands of people currently on universal credit “to meet with a work coach so that they can get the support they need to increase their hours or earnings”, this is the kind of cruelty that comes into view.

The Sunak government’s big imperative, it seems, is to desperately try to get back to the pre-Covid way of doing things, even though it so spectacularly failed us. Initiatives that may remind us of what we have been through, and thereby act as a brake, look unlikely to make any appreciable difference – at least in the short term. By way of answering a glaring absence of official remembrance and reflection, an official body called the Commission on Covid Commemoration is asking for ideas that may include “dedicated memorials and reflective spaces”, but it is moving slowly and quietly, in a space well outside politics. The official Covid-19 public inquiry, meanwhile, will take years to reach its conclusion, has already spread resentment among bereaved families bafflingly told that they cannot submit individual testimonies, and may well prove vulnerable to the very British way that bureaucracy and official ritual usually smooth over even the most howling governmental failures.

As they blithely break their Covid promises, one other thing helps those at the top: many people’s very understandable wish to simply try to leave the pandemic’s horrors behind and pull off the emotional trick known as “moving on”. But the politicians who lead us need to be better than that. In this fading government’s deliberate amnesia, there is an implicit refusal to do anything of substance to prepare for anything similar. This, in an age as volatile and unpredictable as ours, amounts to a quite breathtaking kind of irresponsibility, of a piece with one of our most ingrained national traits: hanging on in quiet desperation, and stumbling into disaster after disaster.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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John Harris

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