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5 March 2021updated 25 Jul 2021 12:02pm

The “great irony” of Nightingale Britain: How the pandemic exposed our weakened state

Much of Covid-19’s emergency provision should have been there in the first place.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In July 2015, a junior minister at the Ministry of Justice called Shailesh Vara announced a plan to close 91 courts in England and Wales.

It was a couple of months after David Cameron had delivered a surprise majority victory for the Conservative party at the general election. His new government – which had kicked off its austerity agenda when the coalition formed in 2010 – was ready to cut the state even further.

After a consultation, the court and tribunal buildings for the chop were whittled down to 86: around one-fifth of the total court estate in England and Wales.

These included the combined crown and county court in Chichester, West Sussex. Under the government’s plans, there would be no court services left in the city at all – save for a room for trial witnesses to give evidence via video link at the police station. Chichester’s crown court was the only criminal court in West Sussex.

After this cut was announced in 2016, a local family lawyer called Edward Cooke began campaigning to keep it open. 

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Following a three-year fight, including threatening the Ministry of Justice with a judicial review, Cooke and the city of Chichester achieved a partial victory. The government went ahead with the closures but agreed in 2018 that some hearings could still be held, for civil and family law cases, in the local district council building.

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Fast-forward to the pandemic year of 2020, and the justice system was in a terrible state even before the virus began to spread. Legal aid cuts of £350m a year imposed in 2013, on top of the loss of courts around the country, built up a backlog of cases and increasingly unequal access to justice.

As most cases moved to virtual hearings during the first wave of the pandemic, the pressures caused by years of under-resourcing built. Eventually, the government decided to introduce pop-up “Nightingale courts” across the country to deal with the pent up demand.

So far, 60 emergency courtrooms are expected to be operating by the end of March – in libraries, theatres, town halls, hotels, even in the grounds of a cathedral. And, of course, in previously closed courthouses.

Chichester crown court, sitting vacant and unused for so many years, will be a Nightingale court from April: restored to its original purpose as a full-time courthouse.

When I spoke to Cooke about this, he pointed out the “irony”. “They closed far too many courts in the first place,” he told me. “I think now, perhaps, the Ministry of Justice are recognising they went too far, because they’ve had to open up significant numbers of Nightingale courts around the country during the pandemic, and partly the reason for that is they went far too far in their cuts.”

If those 86 courts had not been cut, there might have been no need for Nightingale courts at all.

The story of Chichester court is a microcosm of Britain’s pandemic resilience (or lack of). Over a decade prior to Covid-19, the British state had been drastically shrinking. Many of the “emergency” provisions brought in to fight coronavirus are actually refilling cavities in our public services that were only recently hollowed out.

[See also: Justice, delayed: How Covid-19 exposes our crumbling courts system]

The Nightingale hospitals are another example. Ten emergency hospitals across the United Kingdom, plus extra field hospitals and repurposed hospital wings, opened up during the pandemic to deal with the higher capacity of patients.

These hospitals have been underused, mainly because there are not enough nurses and other health workers to staff them. Last March, the government even began begging cabin crew staff (who are trained in first aid) to come and work in them.

This is “one of the great ironies of the whole pandemic situation”, according to Hilali Noordeen, a surgeon at the north west London Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, which had just 65 per cent of its usual requirement of nursing staff during the second wave because of stretched resources.

“The reason why the Nightingale Hospitals are not open is because we don’t have enough nurses,” he told me. “Our biggest problem now is a shortage of nurses.”

Again, this is a result of cuts made a few years ago. By February 2019, nursing degree applications had fallen 30 per cent since the bursary for nursing students was cut in 2017, and repeated public sector pay freezes during the George Osborne years meant nurses were paid less each year in real terms. Staffing was described as the “make-or-break issue for the NHS in England” by the Kings Fund health think tank in March 2019, a year before the first lockdown.

Nurses have just discovered their pay will only rise by 1 per cent thanks to this week’s Budget: a pay cut in reality, because inflation is expected to rise to 1.5 per cent.

Of course, if hospitals had been running with enough slack before the pandemic, there would have been no need for additional field hospitals, or to postpone so many of the usual health procedures in order to divert staff and beds to coronavirus patients.

Again, degrading the health service’s resources and capacity was a political choice. A slower rate of spending on health – and utter failure to fund social care properly – over the past decade led to more cancelled operations (cancellations rose 14 per cent from 2009 to January-March 2020), and available overnight hospital beds falling by 11 per cent in the same period.

In November 2019, four months before the pandemic hit, every major accident and emergency unit in England failed its four-hour waiting time target for the first time. Between 40 and 50 per cent of mental health trusts in England saw budget reductions each year between 2012 and 2016.

What with the deep cuts to public services planned in the 2021 Budget, it appears Nightingale Britain – temporarily patching up cracks only when it would be visibly shameful not to – is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s vision for this country’s future.

[See also: Ten years of data reveal how austerity weakened the UK’s pandemic response]