Years of austerity left the UK hugely unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report.
The TUC said funding cuts left health and social care “dangerously understaffed” and reduced its capacity to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Multiple years of pay caps and pay freezes undermined safe staffing levels in health and social care, which impeded recruitment and increased staff turnover, the report said.
Public services capacity was damaged by “steep cuts” to almost every part of the public sector, it added.
When the pandemic began in 2020, spending per capita was lower than in 2010 in social care, transport, housing, childcare, schools, higher education, police, fire services, and environmental protection, according to the TUC, the federation of trade unions.
It claimed this limited the ability of public services to contribute effectively to civil contingencies and to continue essential activities effectively, such as children’s education.
The report added that during the pandemic, when workplace risks multiplied, workplace inspections and enforcement notices fell to an all-time low.
Funding for the Health and Safety Executive was 43% lower in 2021/22 than in 2009/10 in real terms, with staff numbers cut, it claimed.
‘Austerity cost the nation dearly’
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “To learn lessons and save future lives, we must take an unflinching look at the choices made by our leaders in the years before the pandemic.
“In the NHS and social care, funding cuts put staff levels in the danger zone.
“Cuts to social security pushed many more people below the poverty line, leaving them more vulnerable to infection, and cuts to health and safety left workers exposed to rogue employers who cut corners and put their lives at risk.
“Austerity cost the nation dearly. It left us hugely unprepared for the pandemic, and it left far too many workers unprotected. The consequences were painful and tragic.
“The inquiry is our chance to learn the lessons – and to understand why we have to rebuild our public services so that they are strong enough to protect us in a future crisis.”
The report was published ahead of a joint press conference with the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group on Monday about the lessons they believe must be learned through the UK COVID-19 inquiry.
David Cameron and George Osborne, prime minister and chancellor during the austerity years, have been called to provide evidence to the inquiry.