“I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either..”
Apology by Plato
The events of the last week will undoubtedly shape the future of Britain in a monumental fashion. First, an election like none we have seen for fifty years. Called in hubris, led to nemesis, won, in truth, by no one. History-making nonetheless. The prevailing wind of politics has changed, now blowing Left of centre for the first time in nearly a decade. Corbyn has an approval rating of +6, Theresa May a disapproval rating of -34, nearly mirror opposites of where they stood in November. Who knew?
Theresa May and the Conservatives struck a conciliatory tone. “Austerity is over” they said, in radio interviews, in leaked excerpts from backbencher committee meetings. The “mood has changed” they said.
And then Grenfell Tower happened. And the mood changed again.
As details drip out of what will undoubtedly be known as the biggest domestic disaster since Hillsborough, a hazy but consistent picture coalesces. The fire began reportedly in a fourth floor flat, starting with a fridge. The residents had campaigned for years before about power surges in the building, about the risk of a lethal fire with appliances, but sadly, were ignored. Within minutes, it is reported, the fire had spread out of a window and roared up the side of the tower, consuming the external cladding system as one resident described “like matchsticks”. This external cladding had been part of a recent £8.7 million refurbishment, subcontracted by the private enterprise managing the tower, KCTMO, to update the insulation and aesthetic aspects of the outer structure. In the Times today, it is reported that the cladding material used is illegal in structures greater than 18 metres, is flammable when an alternative fire resistant material would’ve cost just £5000 more, and is illegal in Germany and the USA. Sky News’ Faisal Islam shared a BRE presentation this weekend, a diagram of exactly the kind of disaster that befell Grenfell, dated June 2014, three years ago exactly. In summary, we await the public inquiry that must happen, but it seems 58 (at time of writing) people died in a preventable disaster, that was forewarned, already forestalled in other countries, and seems to have been the result of thoughtless (one hopes) cost cutting from a private company.
But, as Damian Green stated in an extraordinary Radio 4 interview, “we must await the experts”.
Which struck a chord with me.
The mantra “prevention is better than cure” is as true in medicine as it is in fire fighting. Much of what we do, day to day, is about preventing future disease, rather than treating it’s corollaries. We use safety cannulas for preventing needlestick injury, we campaign to stop smoking to prevent lung and other cancers, we screen and treat alcoholics on admission to hospital to prevent deadly withdrawal seizures. When we see impending disaster threatening human life, we have a duty to act, as best we can.
A disaster likely already happened in the NHS, and I cannot help but see the parallels with Grenfell. In February of this year a Royal Society of Medicine Report looked into what was explained away by the government as a “statistical blip.”. Since 2010 the death rate in the U.K. was rising, for the first time in fifty years. More people were dying. To be exact, 30,000 “extra” people died in 2015 compared to what was expected. This study attempted to explain where these extra deaths came from. Was it a subpar flu vaccine one season , as Jeremy Hunt, once and current Health secretary, had claimed? No, the study concluded, the only explanation that fit the data was that 30,000 excess deaths were most likely a direct result of cuts to health and social care services.
Let that sink in.
30,000 men and women, potentially your grandmother or father, sister or uncle, whose deaths were in some way contributed to by cuts to services in the name of “austerity”. Like Grenfell, cutting corners and saving pennies, led to a national disaster. Like Grenfell, multiple agencies have limited oversight over the system as a whole. Yes, the buck stops with the government, but I’m sure they can pass it through any number of government and non-government subsidiaries. Like Grenfell, this essential public service, is sub-contracted in places to private companies, beholden to shareholders as much, if not more, than to the public they are supposed to serve. And like Grenfell, warnings about impending disaster, from “experts” and public alike, have fallen on deaf ears. But unlike Grenfell no one saw these deaths for what they were, a national disaster on a behemoth scale.
Austerity kills. It has already potentially killed 30,000 men and women in health and social care. It has killed at least 58 in Grenfell last week. It has killed thousands of disabled people whose benefits were removed just months before they died. Who knows where else this cost-cutting at any cost has cost lives to save pennies?
If you think I’m politicising this tragedy, you have it backwards. The politics came first, then the tragedy.
Which brings me back to where we started. “Austerity is over” they said. The “mood has changed” they said. As if austerity were always a fanciful choice, a frivolity that was chosen on a whim, as one might decide on a suitable tie, or a wallpaper for the living room. I don’t remember anyone claiming austerity was a “mood” when Osbourne and Cameron were laying waste to health and social care budgets, schools and police funding. Austerity was essential, they said. We have to “live within our means” they said. Except some of us didn’t manage to. Potentially as many as 30,000 of us, our most vulnerable.
So now austerity is over. Was it ever actually necessary? The short answer is no. The long answer is, perhaps for a while, but ultimately still no. Despite what the Mail and Sun has peddled for half a decade, the idea the economy is akin to a household budget is laughable. Pretending we only have control of spending in a government trying to “balance the books” is patently stupid; a government sets it’s own revenues, through tax and VAT, NI and council tax, levies and custom duties, subsidies from other countries, like the EU. Austerity was harmful to our economic recovery. This isn’t left wing socialist claptrap, this is mainstream economics. The IMF agrees as did a large backing of the UK’s top economists. This is economic theory that goes back a hundred years. Any economist could’ve told you that. But of course, we had had enough of listening to “experts” then.
Apparently that’s all changed now.
If we are listening to architects and fire officers again, perhaps we could list to economists and health experts again too, to teachers and police federations. To paraphrase Socrates, wisdom is knowing what one does not know. As a doctor I’ve begun to understand this more and more. Being conscious of the limits of my knowledge makes me safer, means I can operate with uncertainty and know where I need a colleague’s advice, or my boss.
In the age of the internet it seems we now know everything, but understand nothing. For too long we all “knew” that austerity was necessary, that “too much red tape” was throttling business and enterprise, that the NHS was “bloated” and spending “too much money”. Did any of us examine where this “knowledge” came from?
Now we see we knew nothing at all. I hope from these tragedies we can salvage some wisdom.
In an impassioned interview, the MP David Lammy spoke about the “safety net” of schools and hospitals, of decent housing, that is falling apart all around us. Austerity has shredded that safety net, and many have died slipping through the gaps.
Austerity is over, they say. I think we can rebuild this safety net, I hope we can fix the NHS.
But then, what do I know?