WIDENING inequalities in life expectancy and health between rich and poor are a “breach of human rights”, according to one of Scotland’s leading clinicians.
David Kerr, a professor of cancer medicine at Oxford University, said deprived communities have “suffered disproportionately” from Covid and the measures intended to control its spread which have “accelerated and exposed” pre-existing health inequalities.
The Glasgow-born academic, writing for Gordon Brown’s Our Scottish Futures think tank, backs the creation of a UK-wide network of ‘Marmot Cities’ with their own powers to set health, housing, early years, employment and education policies, and where health and wellbeing is prioritised “at the centre of civic politics”.
The framework was devised by Sir Michael Marmot, who has spearheaded research into the causes of the UK’s stalling life expectancy.
In Scotland, the gap in premature mortality between those living in the richest and poorest areas is the widest since 2007, while men living in the most affluent neighbourhoods can expect to live 26 years longer in good health compared to the most deprived males – the widest gap ever.
“These are health policy failures of such magnitude that they represent a breach of human rights,” said Prof Kerr.
“The Covid pandemic is almost certain to have accelerated these worrying trends. Measures to control the spread of the virus will have widened health inequalities: those with high income, high security jobs have been able to protect themselves from the virus; those with low income, low security jobs have not.
“Moreover, there is evidence that the virus has made a heavier impact on people with obesity and among ethnic communities, both of whom are overrepresented in more deprived sectors.”
Prof Kerr, who was born and educated in Maryhill and previously produced an NHS blueprint for the then-Scottish Executive in 2005, said the “fundamental challenge” was to “reverse the longer trend towards a more unequal Britain”. This should include devoting more healthcare spending on prevention, he said, which is “significantly underfunded”.
Glasgow’s Maryhill and Springburn constituency – Scotland’s most deprived – could host a new research hub to pool expertise on tackling health inequalities from across the Marmot City network, which should include “all of our major cities”.
Prof Kerr added that central governments at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff, and Stormont must provide Marmot Cities with the “powers to act by devolving down control on health, employment services, housing, early years and education policies”.
Labour MSP for Glasgow, Paul Sweeney, said: “ We cannot continue to see people pushed into poverty simply because of where they were born, and I would urge all governments across the UK to engage with these proposals seriously.”
The Scottish Government pointed to free school meals, free prescriptions and personal care, concessionary travel, investment in affordable housing and strategies to reduce smoking, obesity and alcohol misuse – such as minimum pricing – as the measures it is taking to tackle causes of health inequality.
Scotland’s Public Health Minister Maree Todd said: “It remains an unwelcome reality that communities experience health, quality of life and even life expectancy differently across our society.
“We already have in place a bold package of measures to improve population health which tackle issues such as smoking, obesity, inactivity and alcohol misuse – however, in order to fully address all aspects of inequality we need full control over economic, welfare and social policies, much of which is currently reserved to the UK Government.”