We have heard the mantra so many times over the years that it must be true: ‘Tory austerity’ is killing off the poor.
Listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday will have heard this same old narrative trotted out by Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology at University College London, whose review into ‘health inequalities’, commissioned by Gordon Brown, has just been published.
Between the end of the 19th century and 2010, Marmot said, life expectancy at birth for the average Briton has increased by one year for every four years that have passed. But this steady improvement came to a virtual halt in 2010.
In some poor areas of the North, he said, life expectancy is actually in decline, especially among women. The gap between rich and poor areas is such that in one ward in Kensington and Chelsea, life expectancy is 88, compared with 71 in parts of Tottenham.
It isn’t deprivation or austerity that is killing us prematurely. It is our own bad habits. Trying to blame the Government is just avoiding the issue, writes Ross Clark (file picture)
The graphic above shows the life expectancy rates for both women and men from 1981 to 2018
At first, said Marmot, he was cautious about ascribing the blame to ‘austerity’. But now, he claims it is ‘highly likely’ this slowing of the increase in life expectancy is caused by cuts to public services. Education, working conditions, child poverty and housing, he asserts, have all got worse and are affecting people’s health.
In other words, never mind a couple of world wars, the Great Depression and three million unemployed in the 1980s — we coped with all that just fine.
But when George Osborne started trying to balance the books and plug the £150 billion deficit left behind by Gordon Brown, we started dropping dead like flies.
What Marmot didn’t say is that improvements in life expectancy have been slowing throughout the developed world. Britain wasn’t the only country where the rate of increase in life expectancy slowed during the 2010s: a similar trend has been seen in the U.S., Germany, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and several other countries.
According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2000 and 2011 life expectancy in developed countries grew at a rate of 13.1 weeks per year for males and 9.4 weeks per year for females.
But between 2011 and 2016 that slowed to 10.4 weeks per year for males and 6.7 weeks per year for females.
You have only to look around a typical British town to see how junk food has become a staple part of the diet (file picture)
Life expectancy for those in the poorest areas has actually declined – by almost a year for women living in the North East, according to new data from Professor Sir Michael Marmot
Figures show how the UK has gained less than eight weeks in life expectancy improvements since 2011. The US has barely had an improvement for men, and has had less than a two week rise for women. Estonia leads the way, with men gaining more than 20 weeks in the last decade
The growth in life expectancy slowed most markedly in the U.S. Yet the slowdown there occurred during the very period when Barack Obama introduced his ‘Obamacare’ health reforms, estimated to have cost £1.35 trillion over ten years. So the theory that showering healthcare with public cash is the way to increase life expectancy doesn’t seem to be supported by the U.S. experience.
In any case, the NHS was spared from George Osborne’s ‘austerity’ measures and continued to receive real increases in its budget of 1 per cent a year, even when public spending was at its tightest.
While there have been cuts to welfare over the past decade, employment is at an all-time high and unemployment at a 45-year low. The unemployment rate now stands at just 3.8 per cent, compared with over 10 per cent at some points in the 1990s and 12 per cent at times in the 1980s — periods when life expectancy was growing fast. In other words, the fall in the rate of growth in life expectancy can’t be explained by joblessness.
When falling unemployment was put to Marmot, he started talking about the ‘quality’ of work — repeating the usual claim made by the Left that zero-hours contracts are making people stressed and ill. Yet only 2.8 per cent of the population are employed on zero-hours contracts — and most of them say they are happy with the arrangement, with just a third saying they want more hours.