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Levelling up will fail if it does not improve lung health

4 min read

The government’s levelling up white paper sets high ambitions to improve the health and living standards for everybody in the UK by 2030.

However, bridging the health gap that exists between the wealthiest and poorest people in our society will only be achieved if we commit to improving lung health and tackle the disparities that exist in this area first.

Not only will this improve the health of our nation overall, but increasing public spending on respiratory research - especially in the north - will create jobs across the whole of the UK and help grow the economy, whilst also creating global economic opportunities that cement our place as a science superpower. 

In the UK, your postcode determines how likely you are to get a lung condition – and how deadly that condition will be. This is partly because poorer communities are areas with more air pollution, people living in damp, poor quality housing, and they are also more likely to smoke than those living in affluent areas.

The situation is bleak, with those in the poorest neighbourhoods now seven times more likely to die of a respiratory condition than those in the richest areas. 

Levelling up lung health can only be achieved if we address the gap in respiratory research funding

Even before Covid-19, lung disease was and still is the third biggest killer in the UK, costing the nation £11 billion annually. Failure to properly invest in respiratory research has held us back from being able to fully understand, diagnose, treat and support the one in five people who live with a lung disease in the UK. 

This must change. The levelling up white paper has committed to increase R&D funding by 40 per cent by 2030, which is a fantastic opportunity to scale up respiratory research and establish the UK as a world leader. 

The response to the pandemic has shown that tackling respiratory illnesses – even those as new as Covid-19 – can be done when the government adopts a hands-on approach with a clear vision on a national, regional and local level. Joining up research, prevention, treatment and care policies has been central to our ability to tackle Covid-19 over the past two years. Tying respiratory outcomes to the core health missions of the white paper is critical to ensure we are applying this same approach to lung disease over the next decade. 

Reducing toxic air pollution – which is responsible for 36,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, is a leading cause of new lung conditions, and is more prevalent in poorer areas – will only happen if we can redesign our heavily populated towns and cities to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads.  

We’ve already seen some incredible results due to the introduction of Clean Air Zones in cities like Birmingham, which remove polluting vehicles from our roads and are backed by extra support to help people switch to electric vehicles or public transport and promote walking and cycling.  

Levelling up lung health can only be achieved if we address the gap in respiratory research funding. Less than £50m per year is spent on respiratory research from public funds - a mere 2 per cent of all medical research funding - despite lung disease making up a significant 6 per cent of the burden of disease across the UK. 

This lack of research investment means we still don’t have the right tools to prevent, diagnose, treat and manage lung conditions. Even where the best quality care is available, many people are still suffering and dying as a result. 

This is a huge, missed opportunity to tackle lung disease and deliver more investment into some of those areas that have been left behind in recent years.

As well as the economic benefits, we know patients do better in areas with high R&D activity, accessing trials and new treatments earlier. The respiratory market is currently worth $51bn and expected to grow by 4.3 per cent annually over the next four years. The UK is in a unique position to benefit from investment, due to our world-leading universities and life sciences sector. We want to transform the UK into a world leader in respiratory research and innovation, supporting those living with a lung condition to lead full lives, and bring in new investment from pharmaceutical companies to grow jobs across the country. 

We don’t want levelling up to become a catch-all phrase, it needs to deliver meaningful change for those most vulnerable in our society by focusing on the key drivers of inequality. Health and living standards will not improve without programmes to tackle the causes of lung disease, coupled with long-term investment into respiratory research.


Sarah Woolnough is CEO of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation.

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Read the most recent article written by Sarah Woolnough - Air pollution alerts aren't doing enough to protect people suffering from toxic air