Investing in a healthier nation will make us more resilient to any future pandemic
A ten year ‘Health Improvement Plan’ backed with £3bn of new funding will transform the health of communities who have suffered most.
We have not yet had the full investigation into the causes of the high UK death rate from Covid. But we already know that one of the most uncomfortable truths is that so many of us have died because we are unhealthy. To compound this, much of our unhealthiness is concentrated in particular areas of deprivation.
The figures are stark. Ninety per cent of those who died with Covid had significant health conditions. The most deprived areas had much higher Covid mortality rates. Blackburn and Darwen had 345 deaths per 100,000 people, five times the rate in South Cambridgeshire, which had 68 per 100,000. To put this in a national context, if the whole country was as healthy as the best areas on this scale, there would have been 40,000 fewer deaths.
Poor health is the main reason people between 50 and 64 stop work
This is the why the governments levelling up agenda, so often seen through a purely economic lens, is equally vital in the health sphere. The two go together. Long-term health conditions create economic inactivity. Poor health is the main reason people between 50 and 64 stop work, and in deprived areas people suffer from a significant health condition 19 years earlier than in the least deprived areas.
One shaft of light in this dark background is that the government recognises that solving this is not about making the NHS bigger. The NHS treats illness, it doesn’t prevent it. We can help the NHS by creating a healthier nation. Essentially we need for the first time to listen to the old rule that prevention is better than cure.
The APPG on Longevity, which I chair, has produced a report called “Levelling Up Health” which sets out a plan to do just that. The report confronts ideologues on both sides. Those on the left who argue that the private sector has “no place in health”, and those on the right who oppose public health measures as an infringement of liberty. The proposals we make are therefore emphatically not motherhood and apple pie. They require political determination.
We suggest five key steps to Level up Health:
Declare the ambition to become a much healthier and resilient nation and recommit to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035, as promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.
A ten year ‘Health Improvement Plan’ which focusses on the five major and tractable health issues-smoking, obesity, clean food, clean air and healthy children-as well as the sixty localities with the worst health record. This will involve challenging businesses that damage health, including some food producers and retailers, and industries such as drink, tobacco and gambling. In these areas exhortation has not proved adequate.
Leadership of the plan by No.10 and the Department for Health and Social Care, with input from across government and society. It should involve businesses, MPs and local government in the targeted areas.
The ten year plan backed with £3bn of new funding in a Health Improvement Fund. The fund is needed to improve the health of communities who have suffered most, which covers 60 local authority areas. Each should be offered a five-year investment package to improve their health and resilience, worth £10 million a year.
Britain becoming a global leader in making society healthier and more resilient, using our skills in health data analytics, behavioural sciences, vaccinations, and early detection.
This should be seen as a chance to look to another important national goal. Not just to make us more resilient as a society to any future pandemic, but to transform the lives of disadvantaged people and areas, so that they enjoy the health prosperity that is already available to millions of us.
Damian Green is the Conservative MP for Ashford and chair of the APPG on Longevity.
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