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‘Fundamental shift’ needed to improve health in poorest areas

The government is facing an ‘increasingly uphill battle’ to improve the health of those living in the poorest parts of the UK, according to the Health Foundation’s analysis of the latest ONS life expectancy data.

Previously published Health Foundation analysis estimated it would take 75 years to reach 5 years of improvement in healthy life expectancy based on the trend for men between 2009-11 and 2015-17.

The position has since deteriorated, meaning it would now take 192 years for men based on the trend between 2009-11 and 2017-19, excluding any potential effects of the pandemic.

The latest ONS data shows no significant change in healthy life expectancy at birth in the UK overall between 2015-17 and 2018-20.

In Scotland, there was a statistically significant decrease of more than a year in male healthy life expectancy at birth between 2015-17 and 2018-20, while other countries in the UK saw no significant change.

Disability-free life expectancy at birth in the UK decreased significantly for both males and females between 2015 to 2017 and 2018 to 2020; this change was driven by decreases in England and Scotland.

David Finch, Assistant Director of Healthy Lives at the Health Foundation, said: ‘The government is facing an increasingly uphill battle in its mission to improve the health of those living in the poorest parts of the UK. Today’s data shows that the gap between the healthiest and least healthy areas of the country has further widened by 1.3 years on the government’s preferred levelling up metric. A girl born today in North Ayrshire or Blackpool is now expected to live 23 fewer years in good health than one in the Orkney Islands.

‘A pledge to increase ‘healthy life expectancy’ by five years and reduce the gap between the healthiest and least healthy local authorities was announced last month as part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. But the government’s strategy suggests it has failed to grasp the scale of the challenge. Our analysis shows that, based on pre-pandemic trends, it will take almost two centuries (192 years) for the government to achieve that increase. Today’s data, which also includes the first year of the pandemic, suggests this number could now be even higher.

‘If we are to see progress, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the government’s approach, from a focus on people’s individual responsibility and choices towards actively creating the social and economic conditions that enable them to live healthier lives. This means providing secure jobs, adequate incomes, decent housing and high-quality education. To achieve this, improving health should be made an explicit objective of every major policy decision. Much now rests on the scope of the government’s health disparities white paper, due in the coming months.’

Photo by Rod Long

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