Coronavirus has exposed huge health inequalities across the country
Hartlepool, site of the forthcoming by-election, has been badly hit by Covid-19. The town’s death rate from the virus has been 27% higher than the national average — higher even than the rest of the North-East. Fortunately for the Conservatives, much of the electorate seems to be more interested in looking forward, and whether the Government can deliver on its promise to ‘level up’ places like Hartlepool. Yet coronavirus has uncovered huge health disparities across the country, and the Conservative government should be aware of the challenge they face.
Hartlepool was particularly vulnerable going into the pandemic because it started from a position of relatively poor health. It is near the top of national league tables for a range of ‘lifestyle’ risk factors. 76% of Hartlepudlians are classified as overweight or obese, the second highest share for local areas in England. It has the fifth highest proportion of adults who smoke at 19% — and it ranks 13th for alcohol-specific deaths.
The consequences extend beyond susceptibility to coronavirus. Life expectancy in Hartlepool is around two years lower than the national average. Moreover, Hartlepudlians miss out on even more years of healthy life: men can expect around 58 years of healthy life, compared to 63 in the rest of the country; women 57 against a national average of 64.
Hartlepool is not an isolated case: life expectancy, especially for the poorest, has been stagnating. Throughout the 20th century, life expectancy rose by around three years in a typical decade. In the 2010s, we gained less than a year. For women in the most deprived areas, life expectancy even fell.
Hartlepool’s poor outcomes undoubtedly reflect deprivation and social disadvantage — average earnings are 7% below the rest of the country, and 22% of children are in poverty. But the bleak national picture reflects policy failure. Public health grants have been cut by 22% in the past five years, despite evidence to suggest that spending on prevention is four times as cost-effective as spending on healthcare. The Department of Health and Social Care apparently tried to “bury” its green paper on reducing smoking, drinking and poor diet in the days before Boris Johnson came to power, and the final document is seen as lacking ambition. There are rumours that the Government will water down its proposals to regulate junk food advertising. Persistent cuts to alcohol taxes have merely made drinking more affordable.
Elections are not just about winning. They are also about improving the lives of those who voted for you. Whoever prevails in Hartlepool on May 6th, addressing poor health there and in the rest of the country should be a top priority to repay the voters’ trust.
To view the Social Market Foundation’s full report, please click here.