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 and investing in mental health and child support services as lockdown restrictions are eased in the coming months.
Coronavirus had “exposed and exacerbated existing health inequity” in under-funded regions which led to more deaths in these areas when coronavirus hit, according to the BMA’s report published on Thursday.
The union, which represents doctors and medical students in the UK, said “the nation’s health was in a precarious position” prior to the pandemic as “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 aiming to improve the life expectancies of those who had suffered most amid the pandemic, including disabled people, ethnic minority groups, and those living in deprived areas.
Dr Penelope Toff, co-chair of the BMA public health medicine committee, 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.
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 BMA advised that mental health services and support programmes for vulnerable children must receive more funding to meet increased demand, and homeless people must not be overlooked in the vaccine rollout.
Universal Credit payments, which were boosted by £20 as a temporary measure introduced at the start of the pandemic, should also be made 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.
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, the BMA has said.
The report also noted how factors such as cramped housing conditions, which were “far more likely to be a problem” for ethnic minority households, had contributed to higher Covid-19 fatalities rates among these communities.
Disabled people also made up six in 10 deaths involving Covid-19 in England between March and November 2020, according to Office for National Statistics estimates.
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