The wealth and health divides in the UK are worsening despite ‘leveling up’ efforts


Researchers have discovered that health and wealth gaps between regions are widening in the UK, causing people to become sicker and poorer.

Economic inactivity because of sickness is at its highest level since records began, with 2.5 million working-age adults inactive due to their health, states the Institute for Public Policy Research report, which is due out later this week.

According to the report, sickness is two times more likely to force people out of work in the north-east of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland than in London and the south-east, undermining the government’s leveling up agenda.

Labour said the report was “devastating” and showed that the Conservatives were “utterly failing to deliver, and inequalities are getting worse”.

Since Rishi Sunak took over as prime minister, the leveling up agenda promoted by Boris Johnson appears to have fallen down the list of political priorities, despite the Conservative’s need to defend a swath of “red wall” seats across the north and the Midlands at the next election.

The IPPR report shows that a significantly higher than average proportion of working-age people are economically inactive because of poor health in the northeast, northwest, Yorkshire, east Midlands, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

It is Northern Ireland where people are most likely to be not working due to sickness. A total of 10.8% of the Northern Irish population are too ill to work, compared with 4.4% in the southeast. The UK average is 6.1%.

All these areas also have lower than average life expectancy and lower than average productivity per person, according to the report, titled “Getting better? Health and the UK labor market”, to be published on Wednesday.

Productivity levels in these places are far below the levels in London, where each person adds an average of £52,239 to the economy a year. This compares with £20,364 in the northeast, where productivity is lowest, and an average of £29,063 across the UK. This gap of more than £30,000 between London and the north-east has risen by £8,000 since 2012.

The northeast also has the lowest healthy life expectancy, at 59 years, compared with 66 years in the southeast, which has the highest healthy life expectancy. Healthy life expectancy is the measure of the number of years that people report they are living in good health.

In the report, Covid-19 has exacerbated this regional inequality, as Wales, Scotland, and all regions of the north and middle of England have higher long Covid incidences than the UK average.

According to Chris Thomas, co-chair of the commission on health and prosperity at the IPPR and author of the report: “Fairer countries are healthier countries, and wealthier countries are more prosperous.” Yet we are getting sicker and poorer as a country – with deepening health inequalities undermining national prosperity, particularly in the north and the devolved nations.

“If the government truly wants to level up the country, it needs to do far more to make better health a keystone of the UK’s economic recovery. Better health is the best and clearest route to better lives, fairer economics, and greater prosperity for us all.”

One of the government’s leveling-up missions was to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between the most disparate areas by 2030, and by 2035 it will rise by five years. However, a new bill gives the government power to alter its missions unilaterally.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow leveling up secretary, said: “Three years ago the Conservatives were elected on a promise to ‘level up the UK, with narrowing health inequalities one of the key objectives. This devastating report shows that the Tories are utterly failing to deliver, and inequalities are getting worse.

“For too long people and places across the UK have been written off. The next Labour government will back all people and all places with the biggest ever transfer of power out of Westminster, as well as reforming jobs support for the economically inactive and investing in our NHS.”

Jordan Cummins, the health director at the CBI, the business group, and a member of the commission, called on the government to intervene to stop the reduction in economic growth caused by the health inequality gap.

He said: “Businesses across the country care deeply about the health and resilience of the workforce and need this to be a priority for the government. The consequence of millions being lost from the labor market has a real human cost but also presents a drag on economic growth.

“Government intervention, in partnership with industry, will be crucial. Policymakers need to prioritize prevention, reducing harm once people are sick, investing in innovative treatments, and partnering with businesses to accelerate progress and create healthier workplaces and more inclusive employment opportunities.”

Clare Bambra, a professor of public health at Newcastle University and another member of the IPPR commission, said: “The north has huge economic potential. But time and time again, research has shown that the government’s failure to tackle health inequalities is setting it back. For ministers to achieve equality and improve lives while boosting the economy, they must address health inequalities in the north of England.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have prioritized health and social care in the autumn statement with a further £8bn, on top of previous record funding, to ensure people can access high-quality care as soon as possible.

In addition to offering more than £3.4bn this year to English local authorities to tackle issues including alcohol use, obesity, and smoking, we are supporting people struggling with the cost of living crisis with £1,200 of support.

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Marta Lopez

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