Friday, October 7

The storm clouds of Brexit and Covid have moved on – but Britain just isn’t working any more | simon jenkins

Tried getting through to a GP’s surgery lately? Or a bank? Or the customer services of almost anything? Catching a flight? Good luck. Waiting for a train? Stay calm, fingers crossed. Patience is a virtue – and, right now, an absolute necessity.

The government is passing through a vale of tears, and for once it is not entirely the fault of the prime minister.

The jubilee holiday period saw Britain’s airports collapse into chaos. Thousands of flights canceled and tens of thousands of holidays wrecked, with the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, at a loss as to what to do. We hear daily that the NHS is in distress. It has “lost” 25,000 beds, and a staggering 14 million patients face delayed surgery, 300,000 for heart treatment.

A third of GPs say they plan to quit the NHS in the next four years, citing bureaucracy and demoralisation. On crime, police failure to investigate burglaries has doubled and prosecutions for rape have plummeted by 70%. In the final quarter of 2021, 96 criminal trials were aborted for want of a judge, against just four a year earlier. London education has reduced 41% of state school parents to feeling they must buy private tutoring for their children.

The simplest tasks seem beyond the state. It takes not weeks but months to get a passport, a dentist appointment or a room in a care home. A second-class letter can take three weeks to arrive. Crossing the Channel means a four-hour queue at Dover. Britain, post-pandemic, has taken on the aura of a badly ruled, poorly developed country. Under Margaret Thatcher, believe it or not, its public sector reforms were admired and imitated by governments around the world.

We know bad news always outranks good, but the scale of public-sector performance failure has become a daily direction. The government puts everything down to the pandemic. It accuses the airline companies of poor planning, and is accused in turn of bureaucratic controls on recruitment and mindlessly laborious security. The truth is, a traumatized labor market is afflicting both public and private sectors. In 2020, there were said to be four people chasing every job. The latest YouGov poll has just one person per job – and in hospitality and care homes, one if you are lucky.

While private firms can at least raise prices to balance supply and demand, no such flexibility exists in the government sector. Frontline doctors are suffering acute overwork while the NHS has failed to recruit 6,000 more and desperately seeks foreign ones deterred by Brexit. Some have 2,500 patients each, and fully half are reportedly thinking of going private. The number of patients switching to private doctors has tripled under Covid. Meanwhile, hospital beds are blocked by 160,000 vacancies in care homes, their staffing also stifled by Brexit.

Each service failure spills over into another. The police complain they cannot handle minor crime as they have to double as a backstop for social and mental health cases. In the courts there is a chronic shortage of criminal lawyers through a cash-limited legal aid budget, driving 2,500 members of the Criminal Bar Association into a now disastrous work-to-rule. The archaic jury system is fit to bust.

The issue is not simply money. More ingrained is the inability of Whitehall to handle years of often botched privatisation. It is astonishing that half the children’s homes in England are now in the hands of offshore private equity operators, profiting on their ability to sting local councils with high fees. This has enabled them to export 20% profit margins out of the country and invite talk of a windfall tax. Privatization may have virtues, but a vice is that contracts make it hard for civil servants to impose day-to-day oversight. The humiliating delay in processing Ukrainian visas to Britain was allegedly because of their having been privatized.

A deeper truth is more significant. The pandemic has plainly caused many people to holistically review the satisfaction they get from work. To some degree, it applies to almost everyone I know. Some are opting for the hybrid working week. Others reconsider the balance of work and family, stress and wellbeing, income and lifestyle. Furloughs and layoffs have led to a burst of promiscuous job-switching. Hard-worked hotel kitchens have emptied. Freelancing has found favor against fixed employment. Far from staying longer in jobs – as over-50s did after the 2008 crisis – a million of them have failed to return to work after lockdown.

This cannot be altogether a bad thing. A national bout of self-reassessment is a silver lining on the storm clouds of Covid and Brexit. There is no shortage of work. A decade ago, pundits were predicting a jobs collapse from robotics and digitization. They could not have been more wrong. But a massive realignment is underway.

One matter demands attention. Britons are going to have to pay more for their public services, even as spending hovers at its peacetime peak at 40% of GDP. There is a clear shift to private sector provision, but it is woefully in need of better regulation. That the care sector should be funding offshore tax ripoffs is shocking. Defining the border between public and private service once ruled the left-right divide in British politics. Less so today; but policing that border has become a complex and critical task of government.

As if he cared, Boris Johnson last week increased the staff of Checkers and closed down the graduate recruitment stream to Whitehall. Every PM has their priorities.

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