A whiff of unrest is emerging in Norwich. When the opportunity to escape state inflicted confinement presents itself, I take a brisk morning walk around the city’s quaint riverside pathways and underpasses. One morning I stumble across a rather curious bit of graffiti written in white chalk. “Tax the Rich Fund the NHS” it reads. Two minutes later, I encounter another, and another, and another – like as not the work of an angry downtrodden progressive whose immediate reaction to the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg is regurgitation. But as the days passed on, more popped up. This was not the work of one person.
Appetites for insurgence seep through the cracks. It starts with posters, pamphlets, graffiti – a notable increase in the amount of local nut jobs preaching about government injustices on the street. Then protests and riots follow. In 2011, when the Egyptians faced President Hosni Mubarak’s Draconian rule, little writings calling for revolution appeared on the sandblasted walls of Cairo. The same occurred in Johannesburg during the seventies. Cultural workers used graffiti and scribbled their anti-apartheid messages all over the city. They were the seeds that promoted and galvanised revolutionary sentiment.
Far from suggesting Britain is on the verge of revolution, what has become apparent is that any threat to our beloved NHS is a potential catalyst for widespread unrest. It has attained quasi-religious status; people pay homage with weekly claps, adorn their windows with tributes and sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ hymns outside their homes. It is Britain’s new health deity. Never has the public held our national health service and its workers in such high esteem. Any announcement of spending cuts and the mob would drag minsters and special advisers alike out of No. 10. We now live in a world where neighbours humiliate one another on Facebook for clapping abstention.
So what will happen rollbacks start? As each hour goes by, lockdown extols a heavy price. Rishi Sunak’s job retention schemes, welfare boosts, and tax deferrals all equal one thing; increased spending paired with a strangulation of state income. According to Price Waterhouse Cooper there have been 1.4 million new Universal Credit claims with around 30% of businesses reducing employment and hours for their workers. Prior to COVID-19 with an expected 1% growth in GDP, estimates tell us GDP will shrink anywhere between -3% and -7%. The budget deficit could rise to 8% to 12% of GDP. Sectors such as transport, hotels, and food services could see their annual output decreased anywhere from 15% to 40%.
Another round of austerity measures to reassert spending control lurks around the corner. The circumstances will force government to comprise on its manifesto promises, abandon new policy and delay certain welfare initiatives. How severe public disenchantment will be depends on how well Johnson’s cabinet can paper over the fissures. If NHS service standards drop while demand skyrockets and liberal media outlets capitalise on tales of incompetence, pockets of protest could spring up across the country. A surge in medical care because of the failure of previous regular treatment, surgery and check up delays will be the first test post-lockdown.
Norwich is not a particularly affluent place. Litter-ridden concrete council estates and dilapidated outer-high streets overshadow the facade of trendy independent foods shops attended by its progressive pink-haired citizenry, litter-ridden concrete council estates. Homelessness is all too visible and the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital holds the worst A&E patient delay time in the country. It is also home to two universities – including an arts university where Labour MP Clive Lewis enjoys cult-like influence. It has all the social and economic problems that its progressive population cares about and is likely to act on. CQC’s announcement of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust as the worst performing mental health trust in England only lends them more weight.
No one quite knows what will happen post-coronavirus. We have nothing to go on. But if it has taught Britain anything – besides the petty antics of curtain twitchers – it is how much the public values its national health service. Any efforts to restructure – the mob will shout “privatisation”. Any efforts to outsource and ease pressure – “they are selling to Trump!”. Mere accusations of underfunding – “Tory austerity kills!”. The government has little manoeuvrability. Boris’s recent reliance on the service leaves him vulnerable. It is all too easy for critics to accuse him of having taken the service for granted.
The underground revolutionaries of Norwich require two things; lack of confidence and an unfathomable social injustice. Failing to address, or even the efficacy of failing to address, the problems in our NHS covers both.
Norwich may be the first domino. And like a pebble dropping into a pond, the ripples will spread. Keep an eye out…