The former prime minister, David Cameron, has been approached by the Covid inquiry to give evidence about how well prepared the UK was to deal with the pandemic, ITV News can reveal.
The move means the inquiry chair - Baroness Hallett - is likely to drill into the question over whether austerity left the health service less able to cope when the pandemic hit.
Sources suggested the former chancellor, George Osborne, had also been approached.
When we asked the inquiry about this suggestion, a spokesperson said: “The Inquiry is preparing to take evidence in June for its investigation into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and resilience. We have sent out requests for written witness statements from individuals who can assist this investigation.”
Emma Norris - deputy director of the Institute for Government - argued that there was precedent to call former ministers to public inquiries and said questions about financial decisions made ahead of the pandemic would be critical.
"One of the most important tasks facing the Covid Inquiry is to help the country be better prepared for any future pandemic, and the inquiry chair is right to call the former PM if she thinks his evidence can support the inquiry in achieving that," she said.
Ms Norris argued that the inquiry needed "to understand whether and how they considered the impact of austerity on public service resilience and how austerity might – for example – affect the country’s response to key risks like a pandemic", which had long been identified as a major risk.
Experts have argued that budget restraint ahead of the Covid pandemic may have affected key areas such as bed capacity in hospitals and PPE stockpiles.
Sally Warren, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund said: "The long period of austerity throughout the 2010s meant that health and care services were extremely stretched before the pandemic hit - with high numbers of staff vacancies, declining performance against key waiting time targets and deteriorating buildings.
"This significantly reduced the resilience of health and care services to be able to deal with the pandemic.
"The health of the nation also stagnated during the decade, as starkly demonstrated by stalling life expectancy gains.”
Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne - alongside their coalition partners - argued in 2010 that the country needed to focus heavily on cutting the deficit because of the impact of the 2008 financial crisis.
The former PM has always defended that position - writing in 2019 that he could have cut even more quickly to "get Britain back in the black and then get the economy moving". He said critics of austerity would have opposed him "pretty hysterically" whatever he did.
But the suggestion that Baroness Hallett will quiz the former PM and chancellor was welcomed by campaign groups and trade unions.
TUC Assistant General Secretary Kate Bell said: “It’s vital the inquiry looks at the impact years of brutal and unnecessary spending cuts had on the preparedness and resilience of our public services.
“It's only right therefore that Cameron and Osborne are called to answer questions under oath at the inquiry. They were the architects of these austerity policies.”
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