We need a Covid Legacy Bill that puts health, wellbeing and happiness at the heart of decision-making
Life-expectancy in Britain has been flat-lining – for those living in deprived areas it is actually falling, writes Debbie Abrahams MP. | PA Images
Coronavirus has laid bare the deep inequalities in our country and the consequences they are having for people’s lives.
This week the Chancellor has a unique opportunity. As he announces further spending plans designed to lift the country out of its Covid slump, he can refashion our economy to reduce inequalities, protect and improve public health, and finally make good the Conservatives’ own commitment to “level up” society.
And let’s be clear - doing this is essential, not a nice to have. Because if we don’t, we will have failed to learn the very stark lessons that Covid-19 has taught us.
The disease has laid bare the deep and damaging inequalities in our country and the consequences they are having for people’s lives.
BAME people and people living in deprived communities are, on average, more likely to have low paid, precarious work in a frontline service exposed to Covid
People of black and ethnic minority backgrounds have been more likely to die from Covid with black men especially vulnerable - the death rate amongst this cohort is 3.9 times higher than for white people. People living in the most deprived areas of the country have been twice as likely to die from Covid. And disabled people have once again been disproportionately affected accounting for nearly 6 in 10 Covid deaths.
There are a myriad of reasons why this has been the case but they share a common cause: inequality.
BAME people and people living in deprived communities are, on average, more likely to have low paid, precarious work in a frontline service exposed to Covid, and live in cramped conditions; they are also more likely to have poorer health as a consequence.
In this way Covid urgently, palpably, and tragically reinforces the findings from Prof Michael Marmot’s report into health inequalities, published in February 2020, just a month before lockdown was introduced in the UK. The report reviewed progress in reducing health inequalities 10 years on from his original report and revealed how life-expectancy in Britain has been flatlining – for those living in deprived areas it is actually falling.
On top of this child poverty is increasing and homelessness rising. He argued that under-investment and rising inequality is to blame, pointing towards the considerably worse health-outcomes for BAME people, poorer communities, and, in some instances, women, compared to their wealthier, white, male counterparts.
Michael reiterated his recommendations from 10 years ago, laying out a roadmap for overcoming these inequities and for creating a far healthier, happier society. Now more than ever his roadmap must be followed as we emerge from a devastating health crisis into a potentially ruinous recession.
We are calling this the Covid Legacy Bill because we need our government to show that lessons have been learned from the crisis
A cross-party group of politicians representing six different parties, working with Compassion in Politics, have, with Michael, devised a proposal that we urge the government to consider. In short, it would make public health and wellbeing the priority across departmental decision-making.
What this would mean in reality is that a set of indicators relating to child education and health, protection and expansion of green spaces, provision of affordable housing, investment in healthcare, and decent welfare support would be the yardstick against which every Government department’s investment decisions and other activities would be measured against.
We are calling this the Covid Legacy Bill because we need our government to show that lessons have been learned from the crisis we are still living through and a page in our history has been turned for good.
This week we have sent our proposal to the Chancellor and invited him to meet with us to discuss the idea.
We recognise that navigating our way through and out of this crisis requires collaboration, cooperation, and co-creation and while Rishi Sunak has done well to plug many of the existing holes in our economy, we wish to be of service as he charts a new and hopefully more prosperous future.
What I have seen during this crisis gives me cause for great hope.
People have come together to help, support, and care. Mutual aid societies have harnessed our goodwill and compassionate nature to look after those in the most vulnerable circumstances and to soften the blow of the disease.
At the same time, we have all been reminded of some of the values and lessons that our hectic, pre-Covid lifestyles had us forget: our frailty, interdependence, our need for love, community, and family.
In a recent survey just 6% of people said they wanted life to go back to the way it was before Covid.
We need new priorities, new ambitions, and new ways of being and that has to come from the government as much as it has already emerged from the people. I believe now is the moment when public health, wellbeing, and happiness can be made the priority in government decision-making and I hope the Chancellor will agree and join with us in making it happen.
Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and co-chair of the all party parliamentary group for compassion in politics.