Alexis Paton, The Independent
This week I gave my inaugural lecture to my first-year medical students. My message was simple: everything affects our health.
Who we are, what we do, where we work, who we love, where we come from — all of it. Which is why, as we doomscroll through the bin fire that is our current government and their dogged loyalty to Trussonomics, it is worth considering what all this turmoil means for our health and wellbeing. While the chancellor and prime minister seem hardly bothered with economic forecasts, over at the Inequalities in Health Alliance, we’ve been doing some forecasting of our own on what these newest changes to the economy mean for our health. It isn’t pretty.
Take the energy cap rise of about 27 per cent that took place last week. Not just a worry for the pocketbook, this has very real and tangible ramifications for health. The IHA has revealed shocking new figures on just how badly health will be impacted by the cost of living crisis.
A whopping 69 per cent of people are worried about whether they will be able to heat their homes to stay healthy this winter due to the economic squeeze. To help counteract these worries, 75 per cent of people have said they will be heating their homes less than the previous year this winter.
While that may seem like a sensible and prudent approach to take given the uncertainty, not everyone has the luxury of pulling on another jumper. Some 12 per cent of people reported that their healthcare professional had told them they needed to keep their home warm to avoid ill health this winter. Sadly, 14 per cent already know that if they need to heat their homes to prevent a member of their household from worsening health they will not be able to afford to do so. We have always known that cold and damp houses cause illness. But we often forget that illness costs the NHS money. Money it doesn’t have. Money Trussonomics has just pulled out of its coffers. How much does a cold house really add to the NHS bill? Even those facing huge jumps in their household bills will baulk at the new estimates from the NHS that it will now be spending at least £2.5 billion a year treating illnesses directly linked to cold and damp homes. Think about the enormity of those figures for a moment. The implication of these findings. The impact of money on health. Imagine not being able to heat your home to prevent worsening health for your child, your partner, your parent, your friend. Imagine watching them helplessly fall into even worse health, through no fault of their own. Or yours. Are you heartbroken yet, because I am. And I haven’t even told you the worst of it.
Cold homes are not just an issue on their own, they are an example of the stark and widening health inequalities in our country. By definition “health inequality” means unequal health within a population, and it is for the most part avoidable and unfair. Health inequality is not solved by putting on another jumper. Countries and governments can choose to tackle it, or not. Inequality was finally getting the attention it deserved thanks to the Covid spotlight, with the government even commissioning a report on health disparities and how to “fix” them by 2030. But that was Johnson’s government and this is Truss’s, and so it is notable that when Therese Coffey announced her “ABCD” priorities as health secretary a rather crucial letter of the alphabet was left out: H.
That report? Inside sources claim it has been “canned” because the notion of health disparities clashes with the new government’s ideology. Probably burned for warmth as part of the efficiency savings demanded of the ministerial services. Inequalities in economy are a priority for this government, not health. The Department of Health and Social Care will now neither confirm nor deny its commitment to lowering the 19-year gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor, thus improving health in our country. It is too busy focusing on the money. But money is an integral part of health. As the economy tanks and the government promotes a policy of the rich getting richer, it’s worth remembering that doesn’t just mean the poor get poorer, it means they get unhealthier too.
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