Inquiry into COVID-19 highlights impact of health inequalities

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has told an inquiry into the 'lessons that can be learned', in the wake of the pandemic, that there needs to be a focus on health inequalities.

Sir Simon Stevens appeared before the health and social care committee and science and technology committee in a session that focused on how the NHS is handling the current wave of the pandemic, as well as the lessons from the first wave. Jeremy Hunt MP, chair of the health and social care committee asked Sir Simon whether health inequalities needed to be part of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, to ensure certain groups were ‘less exposed’ in a future pandemic. In response, Sir Simon emphatically said ‘yes’.

He said a combination of ‘occupational exposures, crowded housing, prior health risk – including obesity – and broader inequality’ had all compounded to create different experiences of COVID-19 for different groups.   

In response to the evidence given by Sir Simon Stevens at the inquiry, Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal college of Physicians (RCP), commented: “We wholeheartedly agree with Sir Simon Stevens that the levelling up agenda should be expanded to cover health inequalities. We came into this pandemic with an unequal society and COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated those health inequalities. Areas that had the lowest life expectancies before COVID-19 are now experiencing some of the highest levels of infections from the virus.

“As Matt Hancock said at our conference earlier this year, the most important levelling up you can do is levelling up people’s health. That is why the RCP – which has brought together almost 160 organisations as the Inequalities in Health Alliance – is pushing for Government to develop a cross-Government strategy on reducing health inequalities. We need this because poor health often arises from factors beyond the control of an individual, or the health system – having enough money to eat healthily, being able to find and afford good quality housing.

“Over 40 years ago the Black Report set out the different outcomes in health that different groups face. These are not new issues. Let this now finally be the moment we decide enough is enough and take the steps necessary to end the unforgivable situation where people in one place live longer than those in another or spend more of their lives in poor health”.

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