Mortality rates in higher-income countries have steadily improved for more than a century. However, these improvements started to stall after the last round of Austerity in 2012, actually increasing in the most deprived areas. In 2019, the UK ranked 24th in the OECD in life expectancy, behind all other English-speaking countries (except the US) and nearly all countries of Western Europe.
These trends were noticeable before the pandemic, which has exacerbated them, but there has been no return to pre-pandemic levels. As a GCPH/University of Glasgow report highlighted, ‘there has been a stalling of improvement overall, accompanied by increasing death rates among large sections of the population living in more socioeconomically deprived areas. This is hugely worrying. Put simply, we should not see such trends in a wealthy society such as the UK.’ Austerity is evidenced as making an important and substantial contribution to these trends.
An independent review by the Health Foundation found large and sometimes widening health inequalities among children living in Scotland’s most and least deprived communities. They found that by 2016-18, infant mortality was 2.6 times higher for babies born to women in the most deprived areas compared to those of the least deprived, compared to a difference of 1.8 times in 2000-02. A key issue is obesity, which by 2019/20, was around 6% among the least deprived five-year-olds compared to roughly 13% in the most deprived. In 2001/2 there was no gap. This will not be resolved simply by targeting behaviours because there is no difference in physical activity by deprivation. There are differences in diet, and a healthy balanced diet is considerably more expensive calorie for calorie and therefore increasingly inaccessible to those on the lowest incomes.
Politicians are failing to address the underlying causes of inequality. In Scotland, we have plenty of analysis but limited action. Audit Scotland recently reported that ‘the Scottish Government has not yet demonstrated a clear shift to preventing child poverty.’ Others, like Suella Braverman, seek to cover it up by focusing on immigration. Public anger at a lack of affordable housing and secure work, declining living standards and austerity has been redirected at the caricatured foreigner. Instead, we should be focusing on the economy and public services with actions such as those suggested in the GCPH report, including:
• Changing the economic structures that lead to immense wealth and income inequalities.
• Increase all benefits and tax credits in line with inflation every year, and put in place a one-off increase now to compensate for the loss of real income since 2010. Using devolved fiscal powers to top up reserved benefits and reverse UK cuts. Create new devolved benefits and increase existing benefits to support those in low-income households.
• Improve the availability of ‘good work’ by increasing in-work benefits, strengthening trade unions, minimising health and safety risks and increasing the statutory living wage to the Real Living Wage.
• Address tax evasion and avoidance and increase taxation of wealth, assets and corporate profits.
• Increase public sector funding for preventative services, and reinstate cuts in public services, particularly local government.
• Eliminate fuel poverty through action on housing insulation and heating and grow a social rented housing sector that is accessible, affordable and provides secure tenancies.
More than ten years ago, the visionary Christie Commission highlighted the impact of inequalities on the economy and our public services. They recommended more collaborative working, preventative spending, and building services around people and communities. Sadly, we see greater centralisation, silo working and little preventative spending. So, it was good to see the recent report of the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee on health inequalities reference the report. What we now need is some focus on delivering its recommendations. Tackling health inequalities should be the priority of all governments.