A cross-government strategy is vital to tackle growing health inequalities and level up
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inequalities that have existed in our society for far too long.
Many MPs will have seen first-hand through their constituencies that once again, the most vulnerable have borne the brunt of Covid-19 and that the pandemic has widened gaps that were already too big to begin with.
Government can create the conditions for better health by improving the factors that lead to ill-health in the first place
Just as the pandemic was hitting our shores, Professor Sir Michael Marmot found that life expectancy had flattened– for the first time in more than 100 years. Life expectancy for the poorest 10 per cent of women has been in decline since 2010, while men and women in the richest communities of England can expect to live in good health for 20 years more than the poorest communities. In Sefton, people in my constituency of Bootle live on average 12 years less than people in Southport.
Government can create the conditions for better health by improving the factors that lead to ill-health in the first place. When Labour came to power in 1997 it immediately embarked on a programme of reform based on the idea that if you lift people out of poverty, you improve their health. And it worked: the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Sure Start has had major health benefits for young people in the most deprived areas and saved the NHS millions.
While it may seem that health inequality is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS, health and social care services can only try and cure the ailments created by the environments people live in.
We know what causes ill-health: poor housing, food quality, how much money you have, communities and place, employment, racism and discrimination, issues with transport and air pollution to name a few. Several campaign groups are clear that a cross-government strategy is needed to take action on these issues, including over 200 organisations representing patients, doctors, communities, pharmacists, local authorities and others that make up the Inequalities in Health Alliance convened by the Royal College of Physicians.
When the Secretary of State announced the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities in October last year, we were promised “a new cross-government agenda which will look to track the wider determinants of health and reduce disparities”. A Health Promotion Taskforce was established. These are encouraging signals that the government understands that an approach that only focuses on what the health and social care system can do will fail. But what we now need is an explicit strategy that brings these cross-government issues together and sets out what government will do to reduce health inequalities. We need to know how that aim of reducing disparities will be achieved.
I hope today’s debate can show that there is strong commitment on all sides to take coordinated action to reduce health inequalities and will shine a light on what role the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will play in that mission. A commitment to a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities would be a welcome priority for a government that was elected to “level up”.
Peter Dowd is the Labour MP for Bootle
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