Doctors’ union urges government to tackle ‘unacceptable’ social inequalities

Doctors have urged the government to tackle social inequalities in the UK as a matter of “moral and economic” urgency.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has said ministers must prioritise making the Universal Credit uplift permanent. It’s also called for investment in mental health and child support services as lockdown restrictions ease in the coming months.

More deaths because of health inequality

Coronavirus (Covid-19) “exposed and exacerbated existing health inequity” in under-funded regions. This led to more deaths in these areas when coronavirus hit, according to the BMA’s report published on 25 March.

The union represents doctors and medical students in the UK. It said “the nation’s health was in a precarious position” prior to the pandemic. This was because “increases in life expectancy in England had slowed” while in other comparable economies “people were living longer and longer”.

The BMA’s report made a series of recommendations. They aim to improve the life expectancies of those who had suffered most amid the pandemic. That includes disabled people, ethnic minority groups, and those living in deprived areas.

“Avoidable and remediable”

Dr Penelope Toff is co-chair of the BMA public health medicine committee. She said it was “simply unacceptable” that over the past year the UK had seen “so many people, including children, living in poverty and unable to access basic necessities” such as sufficient food supplies.

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She said:

Many underlying inequalities are avoidable and remediable and there is both a moral and economic case for them to be addressed without delay.

The pandemic has highlighted existing difficulties faced by many people because of their living circumstances and has disproportionately affected them, both in terms of severe illness from Covid-19 and as a result of the measures which were rightly put in place to control the spread of the virus and that now needs to be acknowledged and put right.

We know that socio-economic inequality alone costs the NHS approximately £4.8 billion per year, and so as the country moves forward, it’s important that the Government takes a much more proactive approach to tackling these underlying inequalities, which have been made worse by Covid-19 and must now be viewed as a priority.

The report

The BMA advised that mental health services and support for vulnerable children must receive more funding to meet increased demand. And the vaccine rollout must be inclusive of homeless people.

The government should also make the temporary £20 uplift to Universal Credit payments permanent, the union said.

Between 2010 and 2020, life expectancy fell among the poorest 10% of women in the Yorkshire and Humber region and in the North East of England, according to the union’s report.

And by 2019, there was almost a 20-year gap in healthy life expectancy between women living in the richest versus poorest areas of the country.

Factors such as cramped housing conditions had contributed to higher coronavirus fatality rates among certain communities. Cramped housing was “far more likely to be a problem” for ethnic minority households.

Disabled people also made up six in 10 coronavirus deaths in England between March and November 2020. That’s according to Office for National Statistics estimates.

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