Having lived in the North my entire life, it’s easy to become inured to the idea that we’re a disenfranchised part of the UK. Even before the sorry days of working from home, southern colleagues would casually ask how things were “up there”.
Sadly the “oop north” cliché achieved devastating traction throughout the pandemic. A recent report by the Northern Health Science Alliance found we northerners were more likely to die from Covid-19, spent nearly a month-and-a-half more in lockdowns, suffered worse mental health and were made poorer than the rest of England during the first year of the pandemic.
This week’s hugely critical report by MPs in Parliament’s Science and Technology and Health and Social Care committees highlighted the incompetence of this Government in its preparedness for a pandemic, but what was not stressed was that here in the North we were a sitting duck for Covid-19.
Before the pandemic, data frequently pointed to geographical inequities in health (and so our ability to fight serious illness). And now, in perhaps the most devastating empirical evidence to date, that disparity has been laid bare.
A report published today by Imperial College London reveals that life expectancy fell by up to three years in areas of the North in the 17 years before the pandemic, leaving people more vulnerable to Covid.
For example, in Leeds female life expectancy fell from 78.7 to 75.6 between 2002 and 2019. For men, the biggest drop was in Blackpool, where longevity declined to 68.3 years.
They are both cities which – living in Manchester as I do – I know well and visit frequently. It is astonishing to think that only around 200 miles away, a woman in Camden has a life expectancy of over 95. Men who live in Kensington and Chelsea have a similar life expectancy – or, to put it bleakly, enjoy 27 years more life than men in Blackpool.
It’s welcome that Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, in a recent keynote speech in Blackpool (he must be glad he lives down South) pledged to tackle “the disease of disparity” as part of the levelling-up agenda. Yet the deep-rooted regional inequalities in health across England have long been cause for alarm. Spiralling hospitalisation and mortality rates caused by Covid simply exposed them for all to see.
The question is: what is to be done, considering the scale of the challenge?
Of course it makes sense to look at geographical imbalance in the NHS and public health services. But addressing such disparities is pointless without robust social and economic policies to underpin drives to improve Northern health.
The Government has to ask why the South has a younger population with healthier lifestyles. Certainly legions of young people – my own twentysomething sons included – have migrated South for improved opportunities. And with their well paid jobs, such young workers can afford fresh fruit and gym membership.
Certainly poverty, paucity of opportunity and overcrowded housing in the North does plenty to explain how the pandemic played out geographically. Not least for those with low-paid roles who couldn`t work from home. Covid was pushing on an open door.
The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities was launched at the beginning of October with the aim of tackling health inequalities across the country. This is only half the answer. Educating people away from fags and booze isn`t enough. Rather than hoping the impact of a rebooted economy and revitalised big business will spread to the North, we need initiatives to help the local private sector create more opportunities. We need more affordable housing, better job prospects – promoted through devolved initiatives.
Theo Rashid, the lead author of the Imperial study, said: “A system that cannot protect lives in normal times inevitably struggles to protect people during a pandemic.”
In that we all agree. Levelling up cannot just be a sound bite. It must be a prescription for saving lives.
( Information from telegraph.co.uk was used in this report. To Read More, click here )