Battleground Yorkshire: Experts call for parties to bring back plan to cut health inequality

In this week’s spotlight issue, Mason Boycott-Owen speaks to experts about how Barnsley South’s health problem came about, and how it can be solved, following analysis which suggests it has the sickest population in Yorkshire.

The next government should adopt New Labour’s approach to health inequalities, experts have suggested following a decade of decline following austerity.

During Tony Blair’s first term the party implemented its healthy inequalities strategy which made sure that government departments had to look at the impact of its policies on the avoidable differences across the country in how healthy people are and how long they live.

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Researchers told The Yorkshire Post that this approach was ditched following David Cameron’s Tory-led coalition, as one of the major losses due to austerity, despite evidence suggesting that the policy made good progress in closing the gap between areas that live longer healthier lives, and those that don’t.


“The worrying thing about the last few years, particularly the last decade or so is that the fact that these inequalities, these sort of unfair and unjust differences in people's health and life outcomes have been getting a lot wider,” said Dr Luke Munford, a Senior Lecturer in Health Economics at the University of Manchester.

He added that some people in places in the North such as Barnsley are living as few as 51 years in good health.

“That’s staggering when the pension age is 66 and planned to go up to 70. A healthy life expectancy 20 years less than the state pension age is incredibly stark.”

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The public health policies, often delivered by local councils, were among those which were the first to go under austerity, due to it being unpopular as you don’t see the impact until years into the future.

Now, when councils are arguably more cash-strapped than during austerity, the loss of these policies, as well as the increase in loneliness from the closure of spaces such as libraries and community centres, are set to keep places like Barnsley unwell as they have been for decades.

This was also made worse by Covid, with areas like this in South Yorkshire more likely to be left with the “scarring effect” of a pandemic for longer, says Dr Munford.

He said you compare the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 25-100 million people, with our latest pandemic, places like Barnsely were badly affected in both.

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“We saw from this that places like Barnsley were slower to recover. There was less resilience to absorb the shock like some other parts of the UK were able to do.”

One way to now close the gap in a post-pandemic UK, looking to nurse its population back to health, and also guide it back to work, also sees experts once again looking to the past.

The “health focus” across all government departments has seen evidence suggesting that it “was really encouraging,” says Dr Munford.

“Health inequalities narrowed in that period, people's health did improve.”

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“For the first time in modern history, there is no guarantee that children born today will live longer than their parents,” says Toby Brown, a Senior Policy Lead, at The King's Fund health think tank.

“Life expectancy has stalled and it has stalled the worst in areas with the most deprivation.

“It’s really difficult to know how to address that given this government had its Levelling Up agenda which was supposed to tackle inequalities and health inequalities across the country.

“That was definitely sidetracked by the pandemic, and it’s not clear what has happened to that now.

“There is a call, as we approach the next election, for the main parties to set out how they would reduce health inequalities using what’s happened before to prove that it can be done.”

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