Public health warning as death rates rise among Scotland’s poor

Written by Tom Freeman on 8 February 2019 in News

Life expectancy gains in Scotland are ‘unravelling’ with continued austerity, experts warn

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Death rates for the poorest areas in Scotland have begun to rise as a result of growing health inequalities, according to two reports published today.

Scotland’s Public Health Observatory (PHO), part of NHS Health Scotland, said the figures acted as a “warning light” for the nation’s health.

Austerity policies which increased inequality may be linked to the trend, experts said.

Life expectancy grew and death rates fell sharply between 1992 and 2011 but since 2012 progress has slowed, and in Scotland’s most deprived communities the death rate has actually risen by one per cent.

Scotland already trails other European countries for life expectancy but new figures show that since 2012 it has made even smaller gains, widening the gap.

Mortality rates overall improved by 11 per cent between 2006-2011, whereas between 2012-2017 only saw a three per cent improvement.

Dr Gerry McCartney, head of the PHO, called the figures a “cause for concern” but that it was possible to reverse the trends.

He said: “There are likely to be a number of factors at play. The strongest candidates are recent policies that address recent economic setbacks which have reduced spending on benefits, squeezed incomes and trapped people in poverty – these may all have contributed.

“Cuts to council budgets and pressures on key local services, such as social care, could also have had an impact. There have been some severe flu outbreaks in recent years which will have increased demands on services too. All of these factors – and more – are likely to be important in explaining the recent trends.

“Whilst there is further work to do to clarify the causes, we know enough to recommend action now.”

McCartney recommended protecting budgets for public services that impact on health like social care, housing and social security benefits so they can meet need.

He added: “Reducing poverty for all groups across the population and protecting the most vulnerable is also necessary. And, we need to maximise the take-up of the flu vaccine amongst all those who are eligible.”

Jim McCormick, associate director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in Scotland, said: “As a country we believe in protecting each other from harm. But today’s findings show our record on tackling poverty and health inequalities in Scotland is unravelling. It cannot be right that someone's life expectancy is held back by where they live or how much money their family has.

“We have a duty to redesign the systems sweeping people into poverty. A rising tide of in-work poverty and high housing costs, combined with the benefits freeze, are making it harder for people to achieve a decent life. National and local government, employers and communities must all work together to take bold action to solve poverty.”

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