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Health experts warn against austerity repeat as Britain rebuilds post-Covid

A new report has said the health of Britain's young people will suffer unless the government rebuilds post-Covid.
Experts have said austerity has been tried and failed, and now is time to "Build Back Fairer". Credit: badsci, www.flickr.com

The UK Government must tackle the growing health and social inequalities exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, health experts have warned in a new report. 

Researchers from University College London (UCL) launched a new report warning the next generation of children and young people risk worsening health and shorter lives post coronavirus. 

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, director of UCL’s Institute of Health Equity, unveiled Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review on Tuesday, which lays out the damage done to children’s well-being and the country’s prospect for improved long-term health.

Professor Marmot, an epidemiologist and expert in health inequalities, said Britain entered the pandemic in an already poor state when it comes to social equality following a decade of austerity from the Government and cuts to public services. 

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Sir Michael raised concerns of a new health crisis made worse by pre-pandemic deterioration of working conditions. Overcrowded living conditions and poor quality housing are also cited in the report as contributing factors to the decline in public health across the country – particularly in poorer areas. 

He said: “We want to build an economy that works for everybody with health and wellbeing at its heart. We ought to be thinking what kind of society we want, rather than saying we need to get back to GDP growth and reestablish the status quo so society looks exactly like it did before, which would be a colossal mistake. 

“The pandemic has brought all of these things to the fore. It has intensified the focus on the social determinants of health and the fundamental inequalities in our society that we must address as part of building back fairer.”

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The report itself lays out a number of recommendations which authors say the government must implement in the short, medium and long-term. 

Professor Marmot’s report claims early years funding across England must greatly increase to prevent closures, with the Government urged to prioritise reducing inequalities in early years development. Build Back Fairer also calls for increased technology provision in schools and tutoring, with a restoration of pupil funding levels. 

In the short-term, the Professor also said the government could remove the two-child benefit cap and fund additional training for young people, as well as enforcing minimum wages, increasing furlough to 100 per cent and ending the five-week wait for Universal Credit. 

Professor Sir Michael Marmot
Michael Marmot
Professor Sir Michael Marmot

The government should also increase public health spending drastically, according to the report, before aiming to reduce child poverty levels to 10 per cent and working towards a sustainable Britain. 

Sir Michael added: “Can the country afford it? Absolutely. We tried the austerity experiment, we did that in 2010, and health stopped improving, inequalities got worse, and health for the poorest people went down. That experiment didn’t work, so we know what doesn’t work. So I ask you, can we afford not to do it?”

These moves were endorsed by those attending the launch, with Angela Donkin, chief social scientist at the National Foundation for Educational Research, saying the government needs to “stop talking and make sure that they follow through with actions”. 

She said: “We need a proper levelling up in my mind. I think that clearly there are going to be a number of pressures on the government. It’s not just the government alone that can do this. 

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Ms Donkin also said she would consider the implementation of a universal basic income, as it reduces the stigma attached to welfare, saying it gives people a sense “we are all in it together”. 

“Actually, if you start redistributing that money at the bottom, people have the opportunity to buy a new washing machine if theirs is broken, or the right amount of food because their children are hungry.” 

The report has been backed by a number of campaigners and researchers, with experts and prominent politicians contributing to the webinar. 

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham challenged the Government to hold itself to its “levelling-up” agenda, backing calls for a redistribution of wealth.

Mr Burnham also said it was crucial that a public inquiry be held into the pandemic in the aftermath, suggesting that Professor Marmot could lead the investigation.  

He added: “I just hope every single person in government reads this report, because if this country does not learn what Michael and his team are doing, and make substantial changes, to go into another health crisis without having addressed these issues would be worse than a national scandal. 

“We are obviously turning our mind to recovery, and we are obviously going to have to get serious about job creation – quality job creation – because this could be like the 1980s or even worse, unless significant resources go into quality jobs. That could be about building back fairer.” 

Other groups also gave Professor Marmot’s report their support, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation saying the Covid-19 crisis has “laid bare the terrible consequences of failing to address poverty and health inequality in this country”. 

The group’s director, Helen Barnard, added: “Communities that were already struggling have been hit hardest and now face a rising tide of unemployment that risks further entrenching poverty and ill health.

“It can never be right that someone’s life chances are so profoundly affected by where they live, the colour of their skin or how much money their family has. 

It is clear that we cannot go back to the way things were if we are to truly break poverty’s grip on our nation’s health – tackling poverty and health inequality must be at the heart of our post-Covid recovery.”