Professor Richard Wilkinson
Published: 2 November, 2012
by TOM FOOT and ADAM BARNETT
A LEADING public health expert said he was “astonished” by findings in a report that shames Westminster as having the biggest health divides in the UK.
Professor Richard Wilkinson, author of the seminal book The Spirit Level, was responding to a report published by the NHS this week.
It said the richest men live on average 17 years longer than their poverty-stricken neighbours and that the gulf is growing at an alarming rate.
A “targeted drive” to improve “health inequalities” has helped the rich while the poorest are being left behind. Professor Wilkinson told the West End Extra that sustaining these huge divides between rich and poor was “worse than locking people up without trial”.
He added: “I’m astonished that we’ve got up to a difference of 17 years. We used to talk about eight years [being a major public health failing]”. He said the “psycho-social” impact would be to drive up stress levels, obesity and death rates among the borough’s poorest.
The Spirit Level lit the touch-paper for policymakers in 2009 with extensive research proving how societies suffered when there was a large gap between rich and poor. It showed how the shocking inequalities laid bare in Westminster this week would “erode trust, increase anxiety and illness, encouraging excessive consumption” right across the board.
The Joint Strategic Needs Assessment report, by Westminster’s NHS health authority, states: “The gap appears to have widened over the last five years in Westminster, particularly for men.
Overall increases in life expectancy have been driven primary by improvements in the more affluent areas, with life expectancy in the more deprived areas remaining almost the same.” It adds: “Westminster has the biggest variation in life expectancy across the social gradient in the country.”
Central and North London NHS Trust public health director Dr Melanie Smith said the divisions were “stark”.
Health inequalities are caused by poor quality housing, education and jobs and the loss of public services, the report said.
Professor Wilkinson added: “If the government would offer a very different way of dealing with the deficit, and raise the top tax rate substantially, and not impose these cuts on the country, things might be different.”
In 2009 the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest men was 12.7 years, according to council figures. At the time City Hall said health inequalities were one of its “top priorities” and councillors would be spear-heading “interventions” to reduce the gap by 20 per cent by 2013.
The council is taking over the running of public health next year and Westminster’s public health chief Tony Devenish said: “We welcome devolution and the opportunity to take responsibility for public health from the NHS next spring. We see this as putting health matters into the hands of local people. The council has concerns over the gap between the life-expectancy of male residents in Westminster but this is a fact across the country based on socio-economic and cultural issues, one we will address as a priority but one which also requires action by the individual.”
The NHS has launched a consultation on men’s health on the back of the results.