Efforts to address poor diet and smoking and improve access to health screening are among the government’s main proposals to tackle health inequalities and boost wellbeing across the UK.
The government’s Levelling up the United Kingdom white paper has outlined ambitions to narrow geographical gaps in “healthy life expectancy” – the years which an individual is able to live in good health – by 2030, and increase healthy life expectancy across the UK by 2035.
Its says the government’s overarching ambition is to “improve wellbeing in every area of the UK”, and claimed the Department of Health and Social Care will “shortly” publish a white paper that will explain how it might address the core drivers of disparities in health outcomes between local authorities, ethnic groups, and people of different socio-economic backgrounds.
“Better health improves productivity and wellbeing. People living in the most deprived communities in England have up to 18 years less of their lives in good general health than the least deprived,” the levelling up white paper says.
“This is driven by a variety of factors, including smoking rates, alcohol intake and poor diet. It is also heavily affected by differences in factors such as the quality of housing and access to healthier food.
We need to hear more from the government on how [levelling up] will be achieved” – Angela Matthews, Business Disability Forum
“Other local factors, such as demographics, also matter – for example, in rural or coastal areas where populations are older. Access to and quality of health services are also important drivers of health outcomes and can vary by area.”
It states that the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the health inequalities that exist across the UK, with hospital admissions, mortality rates and long Covid diagnoses higher among those who live in more deprived areas.
Access to healthcare has also become more challenging for people in less affluent areas. Waiting lists for treatment in England have increased by 55% in the most deprived 20% of areas, compared with 36% in the most affluent areas.
Improving employment support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions is another key facet of the levelling up agenda. Last year the government set out a package of measures to help reduce ill health-related job loss, which included improving employers’ access to occupational health advice and strengthening government support on managing ill-health and disability in the workplace. However the white paper does not mention how access to occupational health might be improved.
Angela Matthews, head of policy at the Business Disability Forum, said that the government needed to understand the realities of how people with disabilities live.
“We need to hear more from the government on how [levelling up] will be achieved, particularly in relation to disabled people. The government has been widely criticised, recently, for failing to properly consult with disabled people,” she said. “We look forward to seeing how the needs of disabled people will be reflected in the detailed and strategic plans behind each of the high-level missions mentioned today.”
Some of the measures to improve health outlined in the levelling up white paper include:
- The publication of a new tobacco control plan for England later this year, which will set out how England will become ‘smoke-free’ by 2030. This will focus on reducing smoking rates in the most disadvantaged areas and groups
- A £75m investment in weight management services in England, some of which has already been used to fund services in Liverpool, Birmingham, Barking and Dagenham
- Testing a “better health rewards” programme in Wolverhampton this year which will incentivise and reward people who improve their diet and levels of physical activity
- Improving health screening programmes for under-served groups
- Publishing a food strategy white paper to help address poor diet
- Trialling a “community eat well programme”, where health practitioners will be able to prescribe fruit and vegetables as well as diet-related education and social support to those at risk of diet-related illness or food insecurity
- Opening at least 100 community diagnostic centres to help tackle the backlog in health diagnosis that has worsened during the pandemic. Centres may include imaging, cardio-respiratory, pathology, endoscopy and general consulting equipment to allow several tests in one visit.
The report says that the forthcoming DHSC white paper on health disparities will consider the behavioural factors that influence health; the health services that people access and receive; and what can be done to improve health outcomes in areas with higher than average rates of early death, often from preventable conditions including heart disease and cancer.
It will also consider how to support healthier living in areas with higher rates of smoking and poor diet, and where access to some health services “can lag behind”.
The levelling up white paper was published as insurance firm Legal & General released survey findings that suggested a divide between how employees in the north and south of England viewed the health and wellbeing support offered by their employer.
Only 59% of SME employees in the north of England believed their employer actively looked after their wellbeing, compared with 88% of those based in the south.
Eighty-three per cent of employers in the north felt they supported the mental wellbeing of workers, while in the south this figure stood at 91%.
Colin Fitzgerald, distribution director at Legal & General Group Protection said: “The need for workplace wellbeing is universal, yet our research shows that when it comes to wellbeing it appears that the age-old north/south divide is very much present.
“Helping address health and wellbeing inequalities does not only make good people and societal sense, it makes good business sense, impacting on key outcomes such as absenteeism, presenteeism and productivity.”