Covid-19: Why we must redraw the UK’s map of inequality

Both the immediate response to and the recovery from the pandemic need to focus on those who have been hit hardest, say Tim Elwell-Sutton and Mehrunisha Suleman

The covid-19 pandemic is the biggest health crisis in living memory. But it is also a societal crisis. It is wreaking havoc on our economy with millions of people losing jobs and incomes, temporarily or permanently. It has disrupted education and childhood development and changed the way we socialise. While we are all affected in different ways, it’s clear that the pandemic is hurting some groups more than others, and more must be done. 

Before the pandemic, the UK was already struggling. Improvements in life expectancy were slowing more sharply here than in almost any other high income country over the past 10 years and the gap between richest and poorest was widening rather than closing. The pandemic has hit us harder than many other countries in terms of both mortality and the economy.

Worryingly, the current pandemic threatens to widen existing health inequalities even further. But it may also be opening up new inequalities, as some of those worst affected are not the usual suspects for health inequalities researchers. The impacts on working mothers are one example

These risks are demonstrated by a new analysis released by the Health Foundation earlier this month. It found that Britain’s poorest areas are now facing a double impact of the worst health outcomes and the most severe financial hardship. The most deprived 20% of local authorities not only have covid-19 mortality rates that are more than twice as high as the wealthiest areas, they have also seen universal credit claimant numbers increase by 8% compared with a 5.1% increase in the most affluent areas. 

The pandemic is impacting different age groups in their own unique ways too. Young people have been disproportionately affected, with one in three young people aged 18-24 being furloughed or let go from their jobs, which is twice the rate of working age adults overall. Furthermore, those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have been more likely to report that covid-19 has had a negative impact on their income. 

With evidence mounting that the pandemic is threatening to worsen health inequalities, both the immediate response to and the recovery from the pandemic need to focus on those who have been hit hardest. This challenge of trying to protect people from the virus while ensuring that pre-existing inequalities are not exacerbated is perhaps one of the greatest public policy challenges the country has faced for a generation. 

That’s why we have launched our own covid-19 impact inquiry, which seeks to understand the impact the pandemic is having on health and health inequalities and to inform how the government can respond to it. The inquiry, due to report in the summer of 2021, will be led by a panel of leading experts in epidemiology, economics, and social policy, chaired by Dame Clare Moriarty. 

Drawing on a wide range of evidence, the inquiry will examine the impact of the virus and the measures used to control it, on health, the healthcare system, employment, and education. It will consider how factors such as deprivation, age, gender, ethnicity, mental health, and disability have affected people’s experiences of the pandemic.

Ultimately, a healthy population is one of the nation’s most important assets. Good health supports positive social and economic outcomes, and how we respond to this pandemic will have an enormous impact on people’s lives for years to come.

Tim Elwell-Sutton, assistant director, the Health Foundation. Twitter @tim_esPH

Competing interests: None declared.

Mehrunisha Suleman, senior research fellow, the Health Foundation. Twitter @MehrunishaS

Competing interests: None declared.