Doctors are warning that UK Governments must urgently take action to address health inequalities, that have worsened in the pandemic, and impacted societies’ most vulnerable individuals.
In a report1 launched today, ‘Mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on health inequalities’, the BMA outlines a range of measures for Governments across the UK to ensure that those who have been most impacted by Covid-19 are protected in the immediate and longer term.
Doctors fear that the unacceptable inequalities that existed before the pandemic will only worsen for families who have been pushed into poverty, and disadvantaged communities that face further hardship due to job losses and Covid-19’s socio-economic impact.
School closures and the knock-on effect on vulnerable children’s wellbeing and mental health; the disproportionate impact of the virus itself on Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities; and regional variations in death rates between people living in the least and most deprived areas of the country, risks negatively impacting the nation’s future health if action isn’t urgently taken.
The BMA wants to use this as an opportunity to work towards addressing the underlying inequalities which lead to unacceptable and avoidable differences in life expectancy, as well as quality of life across all communities. The restructure of Public Health England2 presents a vital opportunity to make addressing health inequalities a central part of the national approach to health and wellbeing and must not be overshadowed by a narrow focus on health security and infectious diseases.
As England prepares to exit its third lockdown and emerge from the pandemic, the BMA has outlined in its report a number of key recommendations to ensure the UK can deliver on the ‘levelling up’ agenda and build back better after the pandemic, including:
- Develop a comprehensive cross-Government strategy – inclusive of civil servants and politicians – to reduce health inequalities as a matter of urgency.
- Ensure vulnerable groups are appropriately supported to access to Covid-19 vaccines – including to overcome vaccine hesitancy – and are not adversely affected by measures taken to tackle the virus.
- Limit as far as possible the worsening of health inequalities due to the pandemic as a priority, including:
- Investing in mental health services to meet increased demand;
- Reducing income insecurity by making the Universal Credit uplift permanent;
- Funding support programmes which go beyond educational support for vulnerable children who have been particularly affected by the lockdowns.
Dr Penelope Toff, Co-Chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said: “There’s no doubt that the pandemic has perpetuated and worsened health inequalities within the UK and it’s simply unacceptable that in a country of such means we’ve seen so many people, including children, living in poverty and unable to access basic necessities such as sufficient and nourishing food. Many of these underlying inequalities are avoidable and remediable and there is both a moral and economic case for them to be addressed without delay.
“The pandemic has highlighted existing difficulties faced by many people because of their living circumstances and has disproportionately affected them, both in terms of severe illness from Covid-19 and as a result of the measures which were rightly put in place to control the spread of the virus and that now needs to be acknowledged and put right.
“We know that socio-economic inequality alone costs the NHS approximately £4.8bn per year, and so as the country moves forward, it’s important that the Government takes a much more proactive approach to tackling these underlying inequalities, which have been made worse by Covid-19 and must now be viewed as a priority.
"As such, we hope that this report launched by the BMA today will help towards setting out the actions which are needed as we exit lockdown. This report follows on from our paper setting out the BMA’s approach to easing lockdown restrictions and forms part of our longer term work on health inequalities, led by the BMA’s President Sir Harry Burns. In the immediate recovery phase, the Government in England must begin to make good on its promise to build back better by ‘building back fairer,’ with a clear commitment to a more equitable society with better health outcomes for all.”
Notes to editors
The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.
2. Details on the restructure of Public Health England can be found here.
3. BMA paper: ‘Taking a cautious approach to easing lockdown restrictions’.