Boris Johnson has told his fellow G7 leaders in Cornwall they should avoid repeating the mistakes of 2008, when the recovery from the deep recession that followed the financial crisis entrenched inequalities.
In his opening remarks to the first formal session of the three-day summit, Johnson said: “It is vital that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the last great crisis, the last big economic recession of 2008, when the recovery was not uniform across all part of society.”
His comments appeared to be a repudiation of his own party’s policies, when a decade of austerity was imposed on public services and welfare benefits after 2010.
Peppering his remarks with Conservative slogans about “building back better” and “levelling up”, Johnson also said the G7 should rebuild their economies “in a more gender-neutral, a more feminine, way”.
“What’s gone wrong with this pandemic, what risks being a lasting scar is, the inequalities that have been entrenched. We need to make sure that as we recover, we level up across our societies – we need to build back better,” he said.
The prime minister was not an MP during the 2010-15 Tory-Lib Dem coalition government that blamed Labour overspending for the crisis and imposed swingeing cuts; but he stood for election in 2015 on a manifesto that included a £12bn reduction in the welfare bill.
The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, said: “It’s absurd to see Boris Johnson talk about not repeating mistakes, when he and the Conservatives spent the last decade cutting our public services to the bone, leaving British businesses out in the cold and weakening the foundations of our economy.
“Instead of learning from its mistakes, this Tory government is caught in a cycle of trying to clean up its own mess.”
Johnson’s official spokesperson said his reference to a more “feminine” recovery reflected the commitment to boosting girls’ education – something G7 leaders have also promised to do.
But the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, ridiculed Johnson’s remarks. “Boris Johnson’s musings on femininity are a mystery. But it would be a big macho mistake to think ‘more feminine’ means accepting a 1% pay cap for the NHS,” she said.
As well as discussing how to rebuild their economies after the deep recession caused by the pandemic, G7 leaders will sign a new agreement on Saturday aimed at ensuring such an outbreak can never happen again.
The Carbis Bay declaration will include commitments to step up research into zoonotic diseases, those which jump from animals to humans. The UK will establish an animal vaccine manufacturing and innovation centre at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, expected to be up and running next year.
G7 leaders will be joined by the Indian, South Korean, Australian and South African delegations – attending the G7 at the UK’s invitation – for their discussions about health.
They will be shown a presentation by the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and Melinda French Gates on the work of the Pandemic Preparedness Partnership, a group of international experts advising the G7 on detecting and preventing future outbreaks.
Their recommendations include cutting the time taken to develop and license vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for any future disease to less than 100 days, and reinforcing global surveillance networks to identify and track new pandemic threats.
The prime minister said: “I am proud that for the first time today the world’s leading democracies have come together to make sure that never again will we be caught unawares.”
In his opening remarks at the summit he said mistakes had been made in the past 18 months, though did not specify what they were. His official spokesperson said they included the protectionist approach that saw rich nations squabbling over supplies of personal protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic.
G7 leaders posed for a joint photograph on the beach at Carbis Bay on Friday afternoon. They later dined at the Eden Project, after a reception with the Queen.
Johnson has been keen to underline his closeness to the US President, Joe Biden, after the pair met for the first time on Thursday, claiming the US and UK have an “indestructible relationship”.
“It’s a relationship that has endured for a very long time, and has been an important part of peace and prosperity both in Europe and around the world,” he said.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, appears to have stolen a march on Johnson in receiving an invitation to the White House, however. The first international leader to visit Donald Trump was Theresa May, who claimed at the time, “sometimes opposites attract”.