Whilst the fallout from Afghanistan lingers, Parliament’s focus has this week returned very much to domestic matters, especially Health and Social Care. On the one hand we have had the Prime Minister’s Covid ‘winter plan’ and on the other, his ambitious plan to finally reform social care – funded with a tax rise that will also address the pressing matter of the backlog in elective surgery. Finally, this month sees the end of both the furlough job protection scheme and temporary boosts to the benefits system introduced at the start of the pandemic.
‘Plan A’ for autumn and winter builds on the success of the vaccine roll-out and provides additional vaccines for millions of people across the UK, with fully vaccinated over-50s and vulnerable people to be offered an additional booster shot. ‘Plan B’ would be implemented if the data demonstrates that the disease presented a greater risk and focuses on mandatory face masks, possible vaccine passports and working from home guidance.
On the new health and social care levy, during the pandemic the country joined together to clap and cheer for our frontline NHS and social care workers. Even now you can find banners and posters still in place around South Suffolk, celebrating and thanking the NHS for their service in an incredibly difficult period. Yet these heartfelt and welcome gestures cannot pay the bills to keep the service running as we address the backlog created by Covid-19. So, the question must be asked, how do we fund the billions we all know we need for the NHS and social care?
We could borrow the money, but this would be generationally unfair, passing the buck to future taxpayers when we all benefit today. Instead, the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have taken the tough but right decision to find the money through our taxes. Yes, this breaches our manifesto – as does suspension of the state pension ‘triple lock’ (and the previous decision to reduce Overseas Aid to 0.5% until our borrowing is under control). Yet I believe most people realise that the pandemic has impacted this country like nothing else in modern history outside of wartime.
As PPS to the Chancellor, I’ve had a bird’s eye view of the difficult decisions that have had to be taken and remind everyone who thinks we can just keep on borrowing that HM Treasury has to model the future in good and bad scenarios and carry the can whatever happens. It would simply not be in our national interest to continue allowing our enormous – and necessary – Covid related debts to balloon still further.
In many ways we are at a crossroads. Some call for furlough’s extension and more borrowing to keep international aid, the triple lock, health spending, temporary benefit uplifts all at the levels they were. In Government we have had to make difficult decisions on each of those, either reducing spending to keep a lid on borrowing or, in the case of the NHS, raising taxes to increase spending significantly but in a way that is fiscally responsible.
The fact is that there are over a million job vacancies in the UK. We shouldn’t be protecting more generous benefits but encouraging people to work more hours or seek new employment. We shouldn’t be resorting to borrowing money to fund vast new commitments after borrowing £400bn last year. Surely the right thing to do is to drive the recovery and get on top of our public finances, so that we ensure long term economic viability. This is the only sustainable way to afford the brilliant public services we all want to see.
Published by the Suffolk Free Press.