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Opinion World

PECK: The Prime Minister Came Down With Coronavirus

Last week, after his release from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson posted a video on his Twitter feed in which he praised the efforts of the medical staff who helped him through his illness. 

As he stared with hallowed eyes into the camera, he struck like a man equal part relieved at his recovery and unnerved that he had come so close to losing it all. He praised the hospital and its staff, completely un-interbed by the distinct irony that pervaded everything he said. As the leader of the party that has cripplingly underfunded the National Health Service and the leader of the Brexit campaign which vilified the European medical workers who helped him, his well wishes struck sour. Nevertheless, where the more clinical viewer might be struck by the audacity of the prime minister and his hollow words, most of the country rallied behind him. All of the sad and damaging irony was lost on the British public, who were enveloped by Johnson’s perfect political theatre.

Over the course of the past two decades, the contentious issue of funding the National Health Service (NHS) has been central to British political debate. When David Cameron’s Conservative government took power in May 2010, it pursued a harsh agenda of political austerity. As the chancellor, George Osborne, slashed money from public services in a vain attempt to balance the country’s books, the NHS was first under the knife. Despite Conservatives’ empty platitudes that NHS funding has been protected under their rule, in reality it has endured the longest period of austerity since its founding in 1945.

The hemorrhaging of NHS funding did not end when the economy started improving, nor did it end when Cameron’s government did in 2016. During the 2017 general election, then-prime minister, Theresa May, promised to increase NHS spending by £20 a year. Regrettably, the announcement came over a year after the general election was over and won’t be fully implemented until 2023. The £20 billion, which amounts to an annual increase in funding of 3.4 percent, still shies from the average yearly increase of 3.7 percent since the health service’s inception in 1945. May offensively dubbed this pitiful funding a “70th birthday present” for the NHS. If this measly consolation prize amounts to a birthday present, I feel pity for Philip May when his special day rolls around. 

If the Conservatives are good for anything, it’s consistency. From one leader to another, the leadership has consistently underfunded the nation’s most popular institution, all the while lying about the damaging effects their policies are having. In last year’s general election, the NHS was a primary subject of debate yet again, as it will continue to be for as long as the Conservatives are in power. In a slew of lies and misleading claims, the Conservative manifesto promised to improve the health service that they have consistently attacked over the last decade. The most frustratingly peculiar of which: a lie that a new Conservative government would hire 50,000 more nurses. In reality, they only planned to hire 30,000 nurses and beg 20,000 already-hired nurses not to leave their painful, underfunded positions in the NHS.

Over 10,000 European NHS staff have left their positions since the European Union Referendum of 2016. The consistent increase in staffing shortages is compounded by a sharp reduction in European staff entering the workforce. In the year following the vote, the number of European nurses entering the workforce fell by 87 percent, from 6,382 in the period 2016-2017 to a measly 805. During the referendum, the charlatan Boris Johnson, who never believed in the Brexit cause in the first place, rode around the country piping falsely romantic notions about Britain’s greatness. On the side of his big red bus, the harrowing falsehood, “we give the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead,” convinced thousands of voters to switch to the Brexit cause. Johnson knew it was a false number and a false promise. In one interview, he is pressed on the issue, and only raises a slight Etonian smirk. It didn’t matter what was true or not, so long as he came out on top. 

When Johnson sat helpless in St. Thomas’ Hospital under the constant care of Luis Pitarmi, a Portuguese nurse, one wonders what went through both those men’s minds. As Johnson lay next to other helpless Britons, with doctors working in “third world conditions,” did he consider his role in the Conservative party and the Brexit campaign? Did he accept guilt? Was he remorseful? Likely, he only thought of himself, normally the only consideration of Boris Johnson’s limited, yet indulgent attention span. 

Following his release, the prime minister finally acknowledged the “pressure the NHS is under”. Sadly, the extent to which Johnson will seek to remedy the dire situation of NHS funding might be limited to his one minute long clip. His dastardly late, insufficient support for European workers and NHS staff might be credible, if there was any possibility of his government changing course. Yet, if the last financial crisis is anything to go by, the coming onslaught will be worse than the last. 

Every single national newspaper splattered Johnson’s ordeal on its front page. The praise he received following his admission to hospital was unnecessary verging on ridiculous. During a public crisis he contributed to, he was relatively healthy. Reports from other would-be patients described apathy in the face of their woes, due to the simple fact that they are not the prime minister. One woman, Kirsten Whitehouse, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on the same day as Johnson, was told by doctors that only the “walking dead” go to the hospital. That is where the beauty of Johnson’s political theatre shines through. He is able to boast of his personal beating of disease that was never that serious, thank the NHS staff he subjugated, and take advantage of an institution his party has drastically underfunded. 

Boris Johnson, in the eyes of the public, is the man who beat the disease. In reality, he is the man who made it worse.