Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the National Health Service Union, said in a statement, “Many may face the dire choice between forgoing meals to heat their homes and living in cold, wet and extremely uncomfortable conditions… This outbreak strikes as the NHS is likely to experience the most difficult winter on record.”
The highly unusual intervention comes after weeks of warnings that the UK is at the start of its worst cost of living crisis for generations.
Inflation crossed 10% earlier this week, putting more pressure on families already struggling to make ends meet. The country is on track to enter recession, with GDP expected to continue shrinking through the end of the year and beyond.
On top of the economic pain, transport and dock workers are on strike and there are warnings of further industrial action across the public and private sectors. Some lawyers in criminal cases also went on strike, disrupting already closed courts.
Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on his second holiday of the summer. Pressed on why Johnson has not returned to London with an emergency action plan, Downing Street says major spending plans should be taken up by the next prime minister.
Johnson’s replacement — either current foreign secretary Liz Truss or former finance minister Rishi Sunak whose resignation led to his eventual downfall — will not be in place until September 5. Almost two months to the day since Johnson’s announcement, he has ignored calls to leave office immediately and step aside to let a new leader get on with the business of governing.
The next prime minister will not be elected by the British public, but members of the ruling Conservative Party are thought to comprise fewer than 200,000 people in a nation of about 67 million.
This is absolutely constitutionally correct. In the UK, voters elect local members of Parliament. The party with the most seats — and with any luck, the majority needed to pass legislation in parliament — requests the king’s permission to form a government. Traditionally, the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister.
In 2019, Johnson won an 80-seat majority in Parliament. Although it is reduced, the Conservative Party still commands a majority and is therefore still able to govern.
So why, say Johnson’s allies, should the next Prime Minister take action to provide financial aid to those suffering amid a cost-of-living crisis, given the urgency of the situation and a professional civil service to work on the myriad of issues.
A government spokesperson told CNN “While funding decisions over the coming months will be up to the next Prime Minister, we are continuing to support people directly with financial support as part of our existing £37 billion package which will come in weeks and months ahead to help people with the rising cost of living.”
But critics across the political spectrum believe this is not enough and that firmer action must be taken now.
Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative member of parliament who supports Truss in the leadership contest, thinks the severity of the situation means the party must end the contest early and install a new PM or authorize Johnson to act now.
“The contest has been too long and we need leadership now. It’s never a good look in the Navy when critical decisions have to be made. So we must empower the current leader to take action or we must end the contest. The British people rightly expect us to resolve this crisis,” he told CNN.
In what is likely to be a stinging criticism of the government in the future, Labor MP Chris Bryant told CNN “Johnson needs to act now on the cost of living crisis. It’s a mixture of laziness and complacency. It’s keeping him (Conservative leadership candidates) from taking action.”
The opposition Labor Party called for an immediate recall of parliament this week so lawmakers can take immediate action to freeze energy bills, which nearly doubled in October after the regulator raised a cap on supplier prices.
In a letter sent to Johnson and the two leadership contenders, Thangam Debbonaire MP, Labour’s shadow leader in the House of Commons, urged the Conservatives to “bring it back to parliament on Monday 22 August so we can freeze the fuel price cap now”.
Next week, the UK’s energy regulator will announce a “rise to the fuel price cap. With inflation rising to 10.1%, this will not only send households further into a spiral of worry, but will push them to cut back before winter. But it will also deliver another shock to our economy. With businesses and households on edge, we need to act.” Can’t wait.”
A fuel price cap is a government-enforced backstop to prevent fuel companies from overcharging consumers.
CNN contacted Downing Street and several government officials for comment on the proposal, but had not received a response on record at the time of publication.
Given the severity of what is about to happen to the country, even former Johnson allies and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives cannot understand why the party in power is so happy on the coast.
Neither leadership candidate has offered concrete examples of what specific policies will be implemented to deal with what will be a miserable winter for many. A cynic might say that any solution would require huge sums of public spending, a cause unpalatable to traditional Conservative members who choose the next prime minister.
Public spending on such a scale cannot be described in the same breath as promises of immediate tax cuts and refusal to raise taxes on big businesses, including energy companies, to fund the crisis.
However, it would not be long before Johnson’s successor answered a wide array of critics. First, his political opponents in Parliament. Then, the wider public at the ballot box.
With dire warnings coming weekly, inaction could be a terminal error that will cost the Conservatives the next general election. And after more than a decade in power, it’s a big ask to forgive the public for sleepwalking through the crisis.