Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Coronavirus has brought the level of strain on our NHS to a new level. The UK Government has ordered the construction of three emergency hospitals; a 4,000-bed facility at London’s ExCel centre called NHS Nightingale, as well as additional emergency hospitals in Birmingham and Manchester. The Scottish Government has followed suit and started work on an emergency hospital at the SECC in Glasgow that will be ready in less than a fortnight.

But if previous Government decisions had been different, could we have avoided some of this strain on the NHS?

On Sunday, the Telegraph reported that three years ago the UK had taken “a major pandemic-readiness test known as Exercise Cygnus” that the NHS spectacularly failed. It was judged that the NHS would have to resort to “battlefield mentality” with older and frail patients being denied care, the “switching off” of some departments to cope with demand, and a severe lack of mortuary capacity across the country.

Despite this damning report, the UK government made no changes to its pandemic planning. If the Government had instead responded to some of the report’s findings, then the NHS may have been better prepared for this crisis.

Exercise Cygnus also reported that there would be a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, aprons and gloves. This week there have been many reports of widespread PPE shortages in hospitals across the country. A quarter of NHS doctors are now off sick or in isolation due to coronavirus, according to the President of the Royal College of Physicians.

Aside from ignoring the findings of this report, other government decisions over the past 10 years have worsened the NHS’s ability to deal with the crisis at hand.

In 2012, when Theresa May was the Home Secretary, she introduced the “Hostile Environment” policy. This was meant to cut the number of illegal immigrants, but in reality it spread division and xenophobia across the UK and “wrecked the lives of those with a right to live here”. Would we have seen the same decline in nurses and doctors from other EU countries choosing to come and work in the NHS, if this policy had not been introduced? We would certainly be less likely to be facing the current mass shortage of nurses and we would then be better prepared for this crisis.

In 2017, Conservative MPs, including the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, celebrated blocking a bill that would have seen a pay raise for public sector workers including nurses, police officers and firefighters. At least 33,000 nurses have left the NHS every year since this vote.

Ultimately, the NHS has been vastly underfunded since 2010 following the introduction of austerity measures by David Cameron. The last decade has seen the lowest growth in the NHS budget cash terms, that when coupled with the demands of an ageing population, has led to an underfunded and under resourced NHS.

Covid-19 was always going to put strain on the NHS, but these decisions made by recent governments have significantly worsened our position meaning the NHS is severely underprepared for this crisis. The acknowledgement that the impact of Covid-19 has been a political choice, must be recognised in all analyses of the Covid-19 crisis.