Life expectancy stalling “a sign that society has stopped improving”

The Marmot Review returns 10 years on, warning that the effects of austerity have had an impact on health inequalities and child poverty in England

Life expectancy in England has failed to increase for the first time in more than 100 years – and it is a damning indictment on the progress made by society, says Sir Michael Marmot.

His Marmot Review into health inequalities was first published in 2010, but returned today 10 years on to paint a grim picture of life in poverty in England.

He found that the more deprived the area, the shorter the life expectancy, with the poorest 10 per cent of women actually seeing their life expectancy decline for the first time between 2010-12 and 2016-18.

That set the tone for a review which concluded that health inequalities have increased in the last decade. Sir Marmot confirmed an increase in the north/south health gap, with neighbourhoods in the North East among the most deprived areas in England seeing the largest decrease in life expectancy. By contrast, the largest increases came in the least deprived neighbourhoods in London.

This was not down to severe winters or flu, insists Sir Marmot, with the slow-down in life expectancy significantly more marked than in most European and other high-income countries bar the USA.

He also cited increasing mortality rates for both men and women between the ages 45 and 49. This was in line with the USA, however, with the review attributing the trend to ‘deaths of despair’ through suicide, drug or alcohol abuse.

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Rising child poverty – 22 per cent in the UK, compared to some of Europe’s lowest rates of 10 per cent in Norway, Iceland and Netherlands – declining education spending and axed Sure Start centres are also to blame.

Add in the housing crisis and a rise in homelessness and Sir Marmot insists that there are “more ignored communities with poor conditions and little reason for hope”.

He said: “The fact that austerity was followed by failure of health to improve and widening health inequalities does not prove that the one caused the other. That said, the link is entirely plausible, given what has happened to the determinants of health.”

Despite the doom and gloom of the report, Sir Marmot did reserve praise for how local authorities in Coventry and Greater Manchester have stood up for residents’ health inequalities.

“Put simply, if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving,” added Sir Marmot.

“The damage to the nation’s health need not have happened. The question we should ask is not, can we afford better health for the population of England, but what kind of society do we want?”

In response, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Every single one of us, no matter who we are, where we live, or our social circumstances, deserves to lead a long and healthy life.

“I thank Professor Sir Michael Marmot for his dedicated work to shine a light on this vital issue. His findings show just how important this agenda is, and renew my determination to level up health life expectancy across our country. After all, levelling up health is the most important levelling up of all.

“There is still much more to do, and our bold prevention agenda, record £33.9 billion a year investment in the NHS, and world-leading plans to improve children’s health will help ensure every person can lead a long and healthy life.”