Opinion: Britain’s health inequalities are the reason so many people died of Covid

Opinion: Britain’s health inequalities are the reason so many people died of Covid
We cannot afford not to tackle the UK’s glaring health disparities, costs to the public will grow

Health inequalities have been laid bare as never before by Covid-19 so now, with the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, we have a new flag to unite behind.

Just as the response to the pandemic did not come from the NHS alone, the challenge of reducing health inequalities cannot only be addressed by those of us working in healthcare.

That’s why the Inequalities in Health Alliance, nearly 200 organisations brought together by the Royal College of Physicians, is writing to the prime minister calling for a cross-government strategy that considers the role of every department and uses every available policy lever to effect change.

Barriers to good health, whether poor housing, diet or air quality, often sit outside the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care. They are also often beyond the control of the individuals whose lives they blight.

Covid-19 must act as a wake-up call. More died from the virus than needed to because people in this country weren’t as healthy as they could – and should – have been. Covid-19 also demonstrated that the government can, however imperfectly, come together to deal with a crisis threatening the health of the nation.

It shouldn’t take another pandemic for it to do so again. Health inequalities need to be treated just as seriously and with the same sense of urgency as Covid-19.

Health inequalities cost lives, shorten lives and make lives less well lived.

Even before the pandemic, life expectancy had stalled for the most deprived in England. While women and men in the least deprived areas had seen their life expectancies grow significantly between 2014 and 2019, there had been no significant changes for men and women in the most deprived areas. For women in the most deprived areas of England, life expectancy actually fell between 2010 and 2019.

Blackpool has the lowest life expectancy in England – 74.4 years for men and 79.5 for women, compared to 84.9 years in Westminster for men and 87.2 for women. The number of years spent in good health for those in Blackpool for men is 53.7 and 55.3 for women, compared with 65.7 for men in Westminster, and 64.4 for women. Rates of severe mental illness are also high in Blackpool, with the second-highest suicide rates for men in the country.

To those who may argue that, having devoted so many resources to tackling Covid-19, the country cannot afford to tackle health inequalities, I say it can’t afford not to. Again, before the pandemic, health inequalities were estimated to cost the UK between £31bn and £33bn each year in lost productivity and between £20bn and £32bn in lost tax revenue and higher benefit payments.

If the government does not tackle the causes of health inequalities, those costs to the public purse will continue to grow, whereas action now will, in the longer term, increase prosperity as we recover from the pandemic while at the same time reducing pressure on the NHS. That’s something I know my colleagues, who have faced the most challenging period in their careers, will welcome. A flag to unite behind.

Dr Andrew Goddard is the president of the Royal College of Physicians, and a consultant physician and gastroenterologist at Royal Derby Hospital


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