In 2014, public health experts from Durham University denounced the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the health and wellbeing of the British public in research which examined social inequality and injustice in the 1980s.
The study, which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of well-being.
The research shows that there was a massive increase in income inequality under the Thatcher government – the richest 0.01 per cent of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990, and UK poverty rates went up from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1985.
Thatcher’s governments wilfully engineered an economic catastrophe across large parts of Britain by dismantling traditional industries such as coal and steel in order to undermine the power of working class organisations, say the researchers. They suggest this ultimately fed through into growing regional disparities in health standards and life expectancy, as well as greatly increased inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.
Co-author Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, commented: “Our paper shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and population health. Advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic policies – such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out under the guise of austerity.”
Housing and welfare changes are also highlighted in the paper, with policies to sell off council housing such as Right to Buy and to reduce welfare payments resulting in further inequalities and causing “a mushrooming of homelessness due to a chronic shortage of affordable social housing.” Homeless households in England tripled during the 1980s from around 55,000 in 1980 to 165,000 in 1990.
And while the NHS was relatively untouched, the authors point to policy changes in healthcare such as outsourcing hospital cleaners, which removed “a friendly, reassuring presence” from hospital wards and has ultimately led to increases in hospital acquired infections.
Co-author Professor David Hunter, from Durham University’s Centre for Public Policy and Health, said: “Taking its inspiration from Thatcher’s legacy, the coalition government has managed to achieve what Thatcher felt unable to, which is to open up the NHS to markets and competition.”
The study, carried out by the Universities of Liverpool, Durham, West of Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh, is published in the International Journal of Health Services.
The backwards future
An increase in UK infant mortality over the past two years, after more than a century of a decline, is the starkest indicator of how, as a society, we are regressing, failing to support the physical and mental wellbeing of children and young people. In October, the frightening implications for individual families and the long-term pressures on the public sector were highlighted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which had published its projections of likely outcomes for child health up to 2030.
The study compares the UK with the EU15+, comprising 15 long-standing EU members plus Australia, Canada and Norway. It shows that by 2030 the UK infant mortality rate will be 80% higher than the EU15+, even if the country resumes its previous downward path. If we carry on as we are, the rate will be 140% higher. As always, the impact is greatest among the poorest citizens. To put this into persepctive, the United Nations’ estimates of infant mortality indicate that only around six other countries have had increases over the past two or three years. We are now comparable with countries such as Dominica, Grenada and Venezuela.
The brutal cuts to local government have increased the risks facing the most vulnerable. Child protection services are increasingly being driven to wait until a child is in crisis before intervening. This puts children in danger, increases family break-ups and drives up the long-term costs to public services as people struggle to cope in later life with the aftermath of avoidable trauma.
Problems associated with poverty are compounded as children grow. As many as 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres may have closed since 2010, stripping away early years support for children from the poorest homes. Remaining centres struggle to cope.
Cuts in services addressing domestic violence and addiction put more children in danger. The repeal of child protection policies that the last Labour government brought in – Every Child Matters – has hardly helped, too. Michael Gove repealed the policy the day after he took office in 2010.
A more recent study, published in the medical journal Lancet Public Health, has revealed that people living in the most deprived regions of the country die up to ten years earlier than their wealthier counterparts.
According to the study, the life expectancy between rich and poor citizens has increased from six years in 2001 to eight years in 2016 for women, and from nine to ten years for men. The research was carried out by the Imperial College London.
The researchers say that stagnant wages and cuts to social security are among the main causes for the growing life expectancy gap, they warn that the their findings are a “deeply worrying indicator of the state of our nation’s health”.
The study also reveals that child mortality rates are higher among deprived communities, with the poorest children more than twice as likely to die before they reach adulthood, compared to children born into well-off families.
The researchers said people from the most deprived sections of society are at a far greater risk of developing diseases like heart disease, lung and digestive cancers, and respiratory conditions – despite the fact that most of these conditions are avoidable and treatable.
Professor Majid Ezzati, senior author of the research from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said: “Falling life expectancy in the poorest communities is a deeply worrying indicator of the state of our nation’s health, and shows that we are leaving the most vulnerable out of the collective gain.
“We currently have a perfect storm of factors that can impact on health, and that are leading to poor people dying younger.
“Working income has stagnated and benefits have been cut, forcing many working families to use foodbanks.
“The price of healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables has increased relative to unhealthy, processed food, putting them out of the reach of the poorest.
“The funding squeeze for health and cuts to local government services since 2010 have also had a significant impact on the most deprived communities, leading to treatable diseases such as cancer being diagnosed too late, or people dying sooner from conditions like dementia.”
Jonathan Ashworth MP, the Labour party’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “This is latest evidence of stark differences in life expectancy, which should act as an urgent wake up call for ministers ahead of the long term NHS plan.
“The shameful truth is women living in poorer areas die sooner and get sick quicker than women in more affluent areas.
“It’s why as well as ending austerity, Labour recently announced we’d target growing health inequalities and implement a specific women’s strategy in government to ensure the health and wellbeing needs of women are met.”
The ideologically prompted and systematic dismantling of public services has stalled our progress as a society, transforming it into a social Darwninist dystopia. The inequalities in mortality between haves and have nots is proof that the government has abandoned and intentionally economically excluded growing numbers of citizens, causing harm, premature death, and leaving them in profound in distress and deprivation, while inequalities in wealth, inclusion, wellbeing and opportunity are being pushed even higher.
If a parents neglect children child, intentionally leaving them without food, warmth and shelter, punishing them because of some unevidenced theory about ‘incentives’ and their attitude, behaviour and motivation, we would say that is abuse. When the state neglects children and treats them this way, we call it welfare ‘reform’.
The public have paid into social security funds and other public services. It is citizen-funded provision FOR citizens when or if they need it. It is not the government’s moeny to take from ordinary people and hand out to millionaires.
Dying prematurely because you are poor is the most unfair outcome of all. As a society, we should all be concerned about the growing divergence in rich-poor life expectancy and the fact that this divergence is damaging citizens. It should also be a cause for substantial public concern that inequalities are being wilfully engineered and fuelled by the UK government.
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