by Aveek Bhattacharya
Wednesday, 14
April 2021

‘Levelling up’ Hartlepool will be harder than Boris thinks

Coronavirus has exposed huge health inequalities across the country
by Aveek Bhattacharya
Life expectancy in Hartlepool is around two years lower than the national average. Credit: Getty

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.

Credit: SMF

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.

Credit: SMF

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.

Join the discussion

  • These kind of articles are funny. Because richer people on average live longer and healthier lives, the assumption is that if you put more money in people’s wallets they will automatically become healthier and live longer. That misses the point that “correlation is not causation”.
    Wealthier people exercise more, eat better, smoke less, use drugs less, etc etc.
    If someone ever demonstrates a physiologic pathway that goes directly from the wallet to the coronary arteries, then all these intervening co-variables will become meaningless. Until that day, I continue to giggle at these righteous do-gooders who think that if the rest of us would just pony up some cash, we could easily save (actually extend, to be more accurate) lives.
    I work in an ER in Canada. Welfare cheques come out every 2 weeks. We do not see a spike in broccoli sales and purchases of gym memberships on cheque day. What we do see is a spike in drug and alcohol sales and use, and a resultant spike in ER visits for assaults, domestic abuse, and overdoses. This is actually documented as “the cheque effect”.
    The overall idea that a government has the power to change an individual’s health status relative to others in the society is utopian. The government can provide opportunities for good health decisions, and they should, but they have always been – and will always be – preferentially leapt at by those who are already the healthiest.

  • What an age we live in where ‘deprivation and social disadvantage’ make you eat too much and become fat. This would have been a great ‘problem’ to have for society’s poorest for 99% of our history.

  • Excellent point and one that I made to my lefty friends shocked at the collapse of the Red Wall. I asked them how they would vote if they lived in one of those seats. “Definitely Labour” was the retort. I then accused them of being the conservatives and voting for the status quo while condemning former Labour voters for wanting som change. As you might imagine it blew their minds and then the conversation became less fact based.
    If voters want change they must not let their votes be taken for granted. Less blind loyalty and more transactional voting is what they need.

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