Government must do more to prevent health inequalities widening as the cost of living bites
This winter, the United Kingdom is facing a cost of living crisis which threatens to plunge thousands of families deep into poverty and puts their health and wellbeing at risk.
It will further embed and exacerbate the inequalities in public health which were exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is all against a backdrop of intense pressure on the NHS.
It is concerning that the current response from the government has not targeted the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on preventing ill-health, particularly for at risk groups. This could result in long-term health and financial consequences for children and young people.
There will be a disproportionate impact on children and young people growing up in areas of deprivation
The cost of living crisis will affect thousands of families across the country but not all equally. There will be a disproportionate impact on children and young people growing up in areas of deprivation, and those from certain ethnic minority backgrounds will be particularly affected, as evidence shows they are more likely to live in poverty already. These children are already experiencing the effects of inequality, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality due to their greater chances of having preventable illnesses, especially when compared to their peers in the least deprived areas.
Spiralling housing, energy and food costs can affect the physical and mental health of children and families. This is a result of the stress associated with money worries, living in colder homes, a reduction in nutritional intake and decreased physical activity.
Families are already being forced to make difficult choices. A survey of Barnardo’s practitioners in July this year found that almost two in three (62 per cent) have been providing families with food or access to foodbanks and over half (53 per cent) had helped to provide warm clothing.
In the short-term, we can expect the cost of living to increase pressure on the NHS through infections or illness in children and young people, weight loss, stress and problems sleeping.
In the longer-term, there is the potential for what a recent Royal Society of Public Health report refers to as a downward spiral impacting the health and prospects of a generation. Children face delayed developmental gains, falling educational attainment due to time off school, increased diagnosis of conditions such as asthma, malnutrition-associated diseases as a result of both weight loss and obesity and mental health conditions, including eating disorders.
The government must act to protect public health at this time and ensure that the most at-risk children do not pay the highest price.
Schools, as well as the voluntary and community sectors, are stepping in to help, preparing for this winter by making more funds available to feed, clothe and keep children and young people warm. But, so far, there remains a gap in national leadership. This is a key moment for the government to prioritise public health, with a coordinated response aimed at the most vulnerable to reduce the impact of the crisis on children and young people’s health and prevent a knock-on effect on health inequalities.
The government must demonstrate a commitment to tackling health inequalities by publishing the long-awaited Health Disparities White Paper. Furthermore, there should be a focus on targeted support for the most vulnerable children, young people and families to prevent the cost of living crisis becoming a public health crisis, worsening inequality and threatening the futures of a generation.
Our children and young people deserve better than this. The cost of living crisis will make everyday life even more difficult for vulnerable families who were already battling through tough circumstances.
The government needs to take action to ensure that the current crisis doesn’t widen existing health inequalities and put even more children at a disadvantage too.
Peter Dowd, Labour MP for Bootle.
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