Public Policy Dynamics UK #5
Health and Politics in the United Kingdom
|Total COVID-19 cases:||4,241,677|
|14-day total COVID-19 cases per 100,000:||126.57|
|Total COVID-19 deaths:||125,165|
- Newly released trade data shows Brexit has had a substantial and adverse impact on UK exporters, as French imports from the UK fell by 20 percent in January compared to the average export volume of the previous six months. Moreover, the UK Government is facing criticism by one of the country’s biggest lobbying groups, the Confederation of British Industry, for dropping its industrial strategy. Separately, opinion polls released in Scotland just after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared before a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints against her predecessor, Alex Salmond, show widespread scepticism of Sturgeon’s account, with only 35 percent believing her account to be truthful. The independence movement no longer has majority support for the first time in months.
- Nurses in the UK have announced they are preparing for industrial action in the face of the UK Government insisting on a one percent pay rise. New data shows the surge in Covid-19 infections following Christmas has had an impact on key health services such as routine surgery and cancer care. Over half of all expected procedures were delayed, resulting in a waiting list of 4.6 million people.
- The UK has managed to provide at least the first dose of a Covid 19 vaccine to just under 23 million people, translating to about a third of its population just under 23 million people. Meanwhile, infection rates continue to drop as total new infections declined by a fifth over the past week. In the wake of Britain easing its lockdown restrictions, the Government’s medical and scientific advisors have warned of an impending surge in infections. The Government is also facing criticism for spending £23 billion on a test-and-trace programme, which has struggled with turning around tests and contacting people in a timely manner.
- UK exporters are finding themselves badly hit by the consequences of Brexit. Trade between the EU and the UK has fallen sharply as French imports from the UK were cut by a fifth compared with the average of the previous six months. Even though trade is largely tariff-free, the flow of goods is disrupted due to transportation delays, exporters having to document the origin of the various parts of the product, health certificate requirements and more complex customs requirements at the border. On top of that, health requirements for meat, dairy and eggs are expected to be made more stringent by the EU in April.
- The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has criticised Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng for abandoning the government’s industrial strategy, which had originally been drawn up in 2017 to spur growth across sectors including the life sciences. Businesses, particularly in the manufacturing sector, expressed frustration at the lack of a cohesive guiding document for key industries, which find themselves in a radically different environment this year due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic and Brexit, in addition to longer-term challenges, such as global warming and a transition to net-zero.
- In Scotland, recent polls show First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity has been undermined by the ongoing rift between her and her predecessor, Alex Salmond. Polls found that her performance at a recent hearing into the handling of the allegations against Alex Salmond has raised the general public’s perceptions of mistrust against her. This was followed by the SNP’s parliamentary business manager having to step aside this week due to sexual harassment complaints against him. Unionists hope that internal conflicts will weaken support for the SNP and a second referendum ahead of May’s election, after numerous polls over the past year suggested the majority of Scottish voters supported independence.
- A row has erupted between the Conservative Government and nurses employed by the National Health Service (NHS) after the Government announced it could only raise nurses’ pay by one percent. Given that inflation is predicted to exceed one percent this year, the settlement effectively amounts to a pay cut. In response, the Royal College of Nursing, which had called for a 12.5 percent increase, voted unanimously to set up an industrial action fund. The long-term plan for the NHS, which was first published in 2019, had originally assumed a pay rise of over two percent.
- Labour Leader Keir Starmer has made the issue of healthcare workforce compensation its key manifesto pledge ahead of the devolved and local elections in May, positing that a “vote for Labour is a vote to support our nurses, to rebuild social care and to reward our key workers”. The majority (59%) Londoners are in favour of a more generous pay rise for healthcare workers, and the issue of key worker pay is held as a key means of reducing the Conservative Party’s current 13 point lead in UK polls.
- The Conservative Party’s current lead in the polls has been attributed to a ‘vaccine bounce’, though the winter wave of the pandemic has showed lasting effects. The spike in infections and hospitalisations at the beginning of 2021 has had a dramatic effect on the delivery of NHS services, such as routine and cancer surgery. Of the 4.6 million people currently on the waiting list, 300,000 have been waiting for treatment for over a year. Before the pandemic began, this figure stood at a comparatively low 1,600. The NHS Confederation has also warned of a growing “hidden backlog” as referrals from GPs for routine operations, such as knee and hip replacements, has fallen by nearly 6 million, compared to the previous year.
- Just under 23 million people have received at least their first dose of a vaccine, which represents roughly one third of the entire population of the UK. The Government aims to offer a first vaccine dose to 32 million people across nine priority groups by mid-April. If successful, this would represent a major accomplishment as these groups combined accounted for just under 90 percent of deaths. From spring onward, the government plans to vaccinate the rest of the population in order of age.
- England has reached its first major milestone in its effort to ease lockdown restrictions, as schools pupils and teachers were given the green light to return to their classrooms on the 8 March. The Government’s chief scientific and medical advisors have, however, warned that infections could surge again as restrictions are lifted, and that no vaccine offers full protection. This comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing pressure from Conservative backbenchers to speed-up his “roadmap” to take England out of lockdown. The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance has warned that the effect of the gradual lifting of restrictions on infection rates had to be carefully scrutinised before moving forward.
- The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, a parliamentary spending watchdog, has criticised the UK Government for spending £23 billion on a test-and-trace programme that did not meet its goals. In May 2020, Johnson told MPs that the system would be “world beating” and would turn around tests in less than 24 hours. Although the system managed to increase Britain’s daily testing capacity from 100,000 to 800,000, it has struggled with long test turnaround times and delays in reaching infected people.