Unfair society, unhealthy lives

Coming on hard behind the recent UK report on inequality of income and wealth in the UK (see my blog, Inequality in Britain, 28 January 2010) is a new report on the health of Britons (or the English, to be more exact).  Commissioned by the UK government , chaired Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Public Health at University College London and published by the World Health Organisation, Fair Society, Healthy Lives shows exactly the opposite of its title.

You can read the full report on the UCL website http://www.ucl.ac.uk/gheg/marmotreview or have a look at the Executive Summary here.


British society is so unequal and unfair that it visibly damages the quality and length of life for millions of Britons.  Sir Michael found that, although life expectancy has risen in poor and rich areas, inequalities persist:  “the more favoured people are, socially and economically,
the better their health.”

The report shows people with university degrees have better health and longer lives than those without.  On average, life expectancy in the poorest neighbourhoods is seven years less than in the richest.  For people aged 30 and above, if everyone without a degree had their death rate reduced to that of people with degrees, there would be 202,000 fewer premature deaths each year.  In England, the many people who are currently dying prematurely each year as a result of health inequalities would otherwise have enjoyed, in total, between 1.3 and 2.5 million extra years of life.

People in the poorest neighbourhoods will also spend a greater proportion of those shorter lives unwell.  Women from less well-off families are less likely to  be able to do proper parenting and by the age of three, their children had more behavioural problems and worse cognitive skills.  Then they have less readiness to learn.

Doing nothing to tackle these inequalities would cost the economy more, according to the review, which says inequality in illness accounts for £33bn of lost productivity every year.  The report says “action is essential” because more than three-quarters of the population experience significant illness by the age of 68 – which will by 2046 be the pensionable age for men and women in England.  And there’s a call for NHS spending on preventing illness to be much higher than the current 4%, with more money going to initiatives such as providing statins and helping people to stop smoking.

One simple thing that could be done would be to raise the minimum wage and take millions out of poverty so they can afford better quality food and pay for regular exercise facilities.  The report points out that the current minimum wage of £5.80 an hour is well below that needed to deliver better health and the minimum level needs to rise by at least 16%.

As the most important medical journal in the UK, the Lancet, commented: the question for voters later this year in the UK’s general election is what sort of society do they want?”

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