Health and wealth divides in UK worsening despite ‘levelling up’ drive, report finds

Exclusive: economic inactivity due to sickness at highest level since records began, with north, Wales and Northern Ireland disproportionately affected

People in the UK are getting “sicker and poorer”, with a gaping health and wealth divide between regions that is only getting worse, research has found.

Economic inactivity because of sickness is at its highest level since records began, with 2.5 million working-age adults inactive due to their health, states the Institute for Public Policy Research report, which is due out later this week.

The government’s levelling up agenda is being critically undermined, the report says, as the new data shows sickness is twice as likely to force people out of work in the north-east of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as in London and the south-east.

Labour said the report was “devastating” and showed that the Conservatives were “utterly failing to deliver, and inequalities are in fact getting worse”.


Since Rishi Sunak took over as prime minister, the levelling up agenda promoted by Boris Johnson appears to have fallen down the list of political priorities, despite the Conservatives’ need to defend a swath of “red wall” seats across the north and the Midlands at the next election.

The IPPR report shows that a significantly higher than average proportion of working-age people are economically inactive because of poor health in the north-east, north-west, Yorkshire, east Midlands, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It is Northern Ireland where people are most likely to be not working due to sickness. A total of 10.8% of the Northern Irish population are too ill to work, compared with 4.4% in the south-east. The UK average is 6.1%.

All these areas also have lower than average life expectancy and lower than average productivity per person, according to the report, titled “Getting better? Health and the UK labour market”, to be published on Wednesday.

Productivity levels in these places are far below the levels in London, where each person adds an average of £52,239 to the economy a year. This compares with £20,364 in the north-east, where productivity is lowest, and an average of £29,063 across the UK. This gap of more than £30,000 between London and the north-east has risen by £8,000 since 2012.

The north-east also has the lowest healthy life expectancy, at 59 years, compared with 66 years in the south-east, which has the highest healthy life expectancy. Healthy life expectancy is the measure of the number of years that people report they are living in good health.

The report finds that Covid-19 has made this regional inequality worse, as Wales, Scotland and every region in the north of England and the Midlands have higher long Covid incidences than the UK average.

Chris Thomas, the head of the commission on health and prosperity at the IPPR and the author of the report, said: “The evidence is ever clearer: a fairer country is a healthier country, and a healthier country is a more prosperous country. Yet we are getting sicker and poorer as a country – with deepening health inequalities undermining national prosperity, particularly in the north and the devolved nations.

“If the government truly wants to level up the country, it needs to do far more to make better health a keystone of the UK’s economic recovery. Better health is the best and clearest route to better lives, fairer economics, and greater prosperity for us all.”

One of the government’s levelling up missions was to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between the most disparate areasby 2030, and by 2035 it will rise by five years. However, a new bill gives the government power to alter its missions unilaterally.

Ebbw Vale high street
The high street in Ebbw Vale. The rate of long Covid in Wales is among the worst in the UK. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, said: “Three years ago the Conservatives were elected on a promise to ‘level up’ the UK, with narrowing health inequalities one of the key objectives. This devastating report shows that the Tories are utterly failing to deliver, and inequalities are in fact getting worse.

“For too long people and places across the UK have been written off. The next Labour government will back all people and all places with the biggest ever transfer of power out of Westminster, as well as reforming jobs support for the economically inactive and investing in our NHS.”

Jordan Cummins, the health director at the CBI, the business group, and a member of the commission, called on the government to intervene to stop the reduction in economic growth caused by the health inequality gap.

He said: “Businesses across the country care deeply about the health and resilience of the workforce and need this to be a priority for government. The consequence of millions being lost from the labour market has a real human cost, but also presents a drag on economic growth.

“Government intervention, in partnership with industry, will be crucial. Policymakers need to prioritise prevention, reducing harm once people are sick, investing in innovative treatments, and partnering with businesses to accelerate progress and create healthier workplaces and more inclusive employment opportunities.”

Clare Bambra, a professor of public health at Newcastle University and another member of the IPPR commission, said: “The north has huge economic potential. But time and time again, research has shown that government’s failure to tackle health inequalities are setting it back. If ministers want to level up the country, deliver better lives for all people, and ensure a productive economy, then they must tackle health inequalities in the north of England and beyond.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have prioritised health and social care in the autumn statement with a further £8bn, on top of previous record funding, to ensure people can access high-quality care as soon as possible.

“We are supporting people with the cost of living crisis with £1,200 of support for the most vulnerable households and have provided more than £3.4bn this year to local authorities in England to tackle issues including alcohol use, obesity and smoking.”


Robyn Vinter and Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

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