Why pandemic’s legacy makes levelling up even more urgent in North – Hannah Davies

AS schools reopen, children mix and people return to work after the summer holidays, we are approaching a period of uncertainty about the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the North's health and economy according to a new report. Photo: Tony Johnson.

Yesterday’s Northern Health Science Alliance report A year of Covid-19 in the North shows us inequality in the region has been expensive.

Our report shows Covid has cost the North in terms of health, wages, freedom and our loved ones. England is an unequal society, and the north of England brings together many of the poorest places.

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The pandemic has made this startlingly clear. Northerners were more likely to die from Covid-19, spent nearly a month-and-a-half more in lockdowns, suffered worse mental health and were made poorer than the rest of England in the first year of living with the virus.

Hannah Davies is the Health Inequalities Lead at Northern Health Science Alliance.

Because people in the north of England were on average already sicker, with worse life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, they were less able to fight the virus.

This translated through to pressure on our hospitals. In the North, 10 per cent more hospital beds were occupied by Covid patients than in the rest of England.

This has had a devastating effect with hospitals having to cope with far greater pressure than those elsewhere in the country and knock-on effects in terms of patient care.

The devastation caused by the deaths of loved ones and hospital pressures are far from the only result of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the North's health and economy according to a new report. Photo: Tony Johnson.

The long weeks and months of 
autumn and winter last year felt particularly long because people in the North spent 41 more days in the harshest levels of lockdown than the rest of England.

The region also experienced a larger drop in mental wellbeing, more loneliness, and higher rates of antidepressant prescriptions.

This all leads to a worsening of outcomes post-pandemic that will need a concerted, well-funded effort by national and regional government to turn it around.

Increased mortality in the North could cost the national economy up to £7.3bn in lost productivity. This will likely to be a conservative underestimate.

We’ve been hit hard in the North by austerity, particularly in areas of high deprivation.

Reductions in the spending power of local authorities in the Northern Powerhouse by £1 per head cost £3.17 per head in lost productivity, which is equivalent to around a £2bn loss in GDP per-year.

But there are things which can be done to safeguard our future and to “level up” the north of England so that future pandemics don’t place such incredible strain on the people of the region.

Government must make health a key part of its levelling up strategy.

This should involve increasing resources in local authorities, social care and the NHS, particularly in regard to increasing capacity in Northern hospitals to help them catch-up on non-Covid-19 healthcare.

Additional resource should be given to local authorities and the NHS in the North by increasing the existing NHS health inequalities weighting within the NHS funding with ringfenced funding to tackle to tackle the higher levels of deprivation and public health in the North.

Government should also level up investment in health R&D in the North to create high-value jobs, support local health and drive the economy. Invest in the North’s testing and diagnostics infrastructure.

It should recommit to ending child poverty. Increase child benefit, increase the child element of universal credit by £20 per week, extend provision of free childcare remove the benefit cap and the two-child limit and extend provision of free school meals.

Invest in children’s services by increasing government grants to local authorities in the North. Maintain and increase the additional £1,000 extra funding of universal credit.

And we must build resilience in the North’s population through developing a national strategy for action on the social determinants of health with the aim of reducing inequalities in health, with a key focus on children.

The biggest lesson is that health is wealth, in physical and emotional terms. And we must invest in it for our children’s sakes, and for a fair and equitable future for all of us.

Hannah Davies is the health inequalities lead at Northern Health Science Alliance and co-author of its new report about Covid’s impact on the region.

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