New analysis from the Health Foundation, a UK based independent health charity, has shown that a key levelling-up pledge to increase healthy life expectancy by 5 years by 2035 will be missed by almost two centuries based on current trends.
The pledge was widely reported on after the publication of the government’s long-awaited Levelling Up white paper in February 2022. It came in response to growing concerns around stark health inequalities between the poorest and richest regions of the UK, with the document stating that the “UK Government’s goal is to tackle the stark disparities in health outcomes across the UK, ensuring people have the opportunity to live long, healthy lives wherever they live.”
David Finch, assistant director of Healthy Lives at the Health Foundation claimed that this pledge appears unlikely to be achieved based on trends established during the Tories decade long period in government.
Since 2010 overall healthy life expectancy has stagnated in the UK, even declining somewhat for women over the same time.
As a result, it may take 192 years for the government to meet its levelling up target based on current trends.
The researchers cautioned that even this projection may be overly optimistic, as the data did not include the massive impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the health of the nation.
This study is the latest in a large number identifying a rising public health crisis connected to socioeconomic inequality and economic insecurity fuelled by austerity policies.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has found that the slowdown in life expectancy from 2011-2019 is the worst such deterioration in almost half a century.
The decline was also found to be among the most severe in the developed world, ruling out the explanation that the global financial crisis was responsible for all of the dip.
The London School of Hygiene study did not make definitive claims about the cause of the slowdown, but it did cautiously advance the claim that “socio-economic inequalities in health within the country may well be implicated.”
Dr Stephen Martin writing for the BMJ open journal was less cautious in his diagnosis, using complex statistical analysis to confirm that “restrictions on the growth in health and social care expenditure during ‘austerity’ have been associated with tens of thousands more deaths than would have been observed had pre-austerity expenditure growth been sustained.”
The report estimated that around 57,000 people may have died as a result of Conservative party policies, in particular the decision to under-fund the country health and social care systems.
Wholesale change in the government’s approach
As health experts have started to conclusively detail the significant and lasting health impacts of Conservative party health and social care policies on healthy life-expectancy, David Finch has called for a wholesale change in the government’s approach:
“[T]here needs to be a fundamental shift in the government’s approach, from a focus on people’s individual responsibility and choices towards actively creating the social and economic conditions that enable them to live healthier lives.
“This means providing secure jobs, adequate incomes, decent housing and high-quality education.”
Such a fundamental shift in government policy did seem possible in the face of the aftermath of the devastating coronavirus pandemic. However, comments made by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in a recent speech to Bayes Business school show that such a political realignment appears extremely unlikely any time soon. The Chancellor repeatedly reaffirmed the supremacy of “free-markets” and warned against the “false idea” that the government “must spend ever more regardless of the impact on borrowing and debt.”
Rather than embracing an expansive role for the government in tackling the economic underpinnings of the current health crisis, the Chancellor maintained the position that the “marginal pound our country produces is far better spent by individuals and businesses than by the government.”
However, the political consequences of failing to tackle the UK’s health crisis may prove fatal to the Conservatives electoral chances.
Health has been considered by the British public to be the most important issue facing the country over the course of the pandemic, despite the competing seriousness of issues such as climate change, unemployment and the cost of living. While the vaccine has significantly reduced Covid-19 fatalities, the pandemic has left 1.3 million people inflicted with persistent ‘long-covid’, as well as causing NHS waiting lists to soar to an unprecedented 6 million people.
The Conservative party’s long-standing failure to get to grips with the issue of public health, reflected in stagnating life-expectancy, huge regional health inequalities and a severely strained health and social care system is likely to further diminish the beleaguered party’s electoral viability, already undermined by the partygate scandals and rising living costs.
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