London, United Kingdom – A decade of “austerity” – a political programme of slashing public spending on services in a bid to reduce government budget deficits – has seen significant effects on the health and wellbeing of Britons, new research has reported.
Life expectancy has stalled and mortality rates have increased, especially for the poorest in the United Kingdom, according to a report commissioned by the Institute of Health Equity.
The report, Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review Ten Years On, was launched on Tuesday and sees Sir Michael Marmot, a former president of the World Medical Association, updating his influential 2010 report, having been asked by the then-Labour government to study the question: “Is inequality making us sick?”
Marmot’s latest research analysed a wealth of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England to explore what has happened since his last landmark report. And the answer can only be summarised as: Not only is inequality making us sick but it is killing us quicker.
In the past decade – for the first time in 120 years of increasing life expectancy in England – life expectancy has stalled for those people living in the UK’s 10 percent most deprived areas, particularly in the northeast.
Among women from the most deprived areas – especially British women of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin – life expectancy fell between 2010-2012 and again between 2016-2018.
Mortality rates have meanwhile increased for people aged between 45 and 49 – the generation that grew up under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s administrations. The report details how life expectancy follows the social gradient – the more deprived the area, the shorter the life expectancy.
Marmot’s data analysis finds that, as the social gradient has become steeper, so inequalities in life expectancy have also increased.
Austerity has adversely affected the social determinants that impact on health in the short, medium and long term. Austerity will cast a long shadow over the lives of the children born and growing up under its effects
Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London (UCL) and director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, describes this past 10 years as “the lost decade”, in which political austerity has taken its toll: From rising child poverty and the closure of children’s centres, to declines in education funding, an increase in precarious work and zero-hours contracts, to a housing affordability crisis and a rise in homelessness, to people with insufficient money to lead a healthy life and resorting to foodbanks in ever larger numbers, to ignored communities with poor conditions and little reason for hope.
And these outcomes are even worse for minority ethnic population groups and people with disabilities, he says.
“We cannot say with certainty which of these adverse trends might be responsible for the worsening health picture in England,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Some, such as the increase in child poverty, will mostly show their effects in the long term. We can say, though, that austerity has adversely affected the social determinants that impact on health in the short, medium and long term. Austerity will cast a long shadow over the lives of the children born and growing up under its effects.”
Dr Jessica Allen, another of the report’s authors, added: “What we do in the report is to explore what’s happened to health in the last ten years, which is the decade of austerity … This alerted us to the fact that something really quite profound was happening in this country, and we know that health is mostly related to the conditions in which we all live and work and age.
“So that’s our starting point – life expectancy in England has stalled and health equalities are widening – these are trends we haven’t seen before, and they are really quite concerning, and they alert us to the factors of economic, environmental and cultural trends which drive our health.”
Yet another concerning finding in the report is an increase in the number of people across England who have spent more time with poor health since 2010. Marmot says the UK government has not prioritised inequalities in its policy designed to address this. Nor has there been any attempt to establish a national health inequalities strategy since the fall of the last Labour government.
Marmot recommends – for the health and wellbeing of the UK – that funding cuts be reversed, with levels of spending on public health targeting inequality across areas of deprivation raised well beyond 2010 levels of funding.
“The government may say that austerity has ended,” said Marmot, “but until it spends above the 31 percent it currently spends on public health and education, then austerity is ongoing.”
In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Every single one of us, no matter who we are, where we live, or our social circumstances, deserves to lead a long and healthy life.
“The ultimate goal of the NHS is to increase healthy life expectancy, and this government is determined to narrow the gap by levelling up access to healthcare across England.
“I thank Professor Sir Michael Marmot for his dedicated work to shine a light on this vital issue. His findings show how important this agenda is, and renew my determination to level up health life expectancy across our country. After all, levelling up health is the most important levelling up of all.”