Pandemic health inequalities will hit economy

A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has warned the cost of long COVID to the UK economy may top £8 billion this year alone.

The think tank issued the study to mark the launch of a new Commission on Health and Prosperity saying that the UK’s deep health inequalities and ineffective policies mean people are living shorter lives, with more years spent in poor health, and face greater barriers to staying in and getting on at work.

The analysis showed that there are now more than a million workers missing from the workforce compared to the pre-pandemic trend and about 400,000 of these are no longer working because of health factors, such as long Covid, disruption to health care and declining mental health. Unresolved, this will drag down economic activity this year by an estimated £8 billion, the researchers warn.

The study found that the relationship between health and the economy goes much further than just keeping workers away from their jobs, it is also a decisive factor in the UK’s terminally low productivity, low growth, and vast regional inequalities.

Dame Sally Davies, former chief medical officer and co-chair of the Commission on Health and Prosperity, said: “A fairer country is a healthier one, and a healthier country is a more prosperous one. While the restrictions have eased, the scars of the pandemic still remain deep on the nation’s health and our economy. Not only are we facing a severe cost of living crisis, driven in part by pandemic induced inflation, we’re also experiencing a workforce shortage driven by poor health that’s holding back the economy. It has never been more important to put good health at the heart of our society and economy – and our commission will bring forward a plan to do just that.”

The IPPR said the study highlighted that health and the economy are two sides of the same coin.

It found people living in the most economically deprived parts of the country – including Blackpool, Knowsley and Barking & Dagenham – can on average also expect to fall into poor health in just their late 50s, five years earlier than the national average and 12 years sooner than people living in the healthiest area in the country, Wokingham. This is largely down to factors like low quality housing, bad jobs, low wages and chronic stress, the report argues.

If rates of child poverty and unemployment in the unhealthiest local authorities (e.g. Blackpool, Kingston upon Hull, Stoke) met rates in the healthiest local authorities (e.g. Windsor & Maidenhead, Wokingham, Richmond upon Thames, we would see 430,000 less children in poverty and 420,000 more adults in work.

To remedy what the think tank describes as an “injustice”, it has called for a new post-pandemic approach to the nation’s health to ensure people can enjoy living healthy lives longer and to heal the nation’s fractured and anaemic economy.

It is launching a new cross-party Health and Prosperity Commission to explore how good health can be the foundation for a fair and prosperous economy.

“For too long politicians have treated spending on health as a cost to be contained, rather than as a keystone of a thriving, prosperous economy,” added the study.

It added: “If health standards in all local authorities were brought up to be at least in line with the healthiest 10 per cent of places, we would see gross value added per hour worked increase by 1.5 per cent – or 46 pence per hour worked, by each worker, on average. Given the UK’s stagnant productivity growth, this would be a major increase. The most significant productivity gains would be seen in places like Blackpool (3.9 per cent boost to GVA/hour worked), Kingston upon Hull (3.8 per cent) and Inverclyde (3.7 per cent).

“In the 1960s, Japan was the least healthy G7 nation, but is now the healthiest. If the UK met the health outcomes of Japan, people would stay in good health for four additional years on average. As a result, the UK’s overall productivity could be boosted by 1.2 per cent.

“The UK’s poor health outcomes and unequal stagnant economy are not inevitable, or the result of anything innate about the country or its people, but the result of policy choices, according to IPPR. Policy makers must now set about putting the building blocks of good health in place – good work, quality housing, local public health services, a well-funded and staffed NHS – to improve people’s lives and wellbeing, and to unlock the UK’s full economic potential.”

Chris Thomas, head of the Commission on Health and Prosperity, explained: “As the government moves to a ‘living with Covid’ strategy, politicians must not forget how intrinsically linked our health is to our economic fortunes. Policymakers can take immediate steps to make it easier for people dealing with long-Covid and other health complications back to work, but they must also take decisive action to improve our health overall and tackle our nation’s burning health and economic inequalities. An unthinking return to the status quo would be a grotesque injustice to all who have lost their lives and livelihoods. We must build back better.”

“Historically, Britain has succeeded economically when it has combined innovative technology with improvements in public health,” added Sir Oliver Letwin, former cabinet member and member of the Commission on Health and Prosperity Sir Oliver Letwin. “The Victorians made huge investments in sanitation and public health partly as a way of promoting social justice, but also as a way of boosting productivity. It is time to rekindle that spirit and deliver a new era of better health, greater health equality and greater prosperity.”

The study found that the relationship between health and the economy goes much further than just keeping workers away from their jobs, it is also a decisive factor in the UK’s terminally low productivity, low growth, and vast regional inequalities.

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