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Widening our understanding on what shapes health is the only way to unlock the UK’s full potential

17 January 2023

Health and the economy are consistently amongst the top issues concerning the public. same can mostly be said for politicians, with the economy taking centre stage throughout the majority of 2022, and record expenditure levels on health as a proportion of GDP.

Whilst health and the economy are interconnected, policy decisions don’t generally take into account the opportunities that come from tackling the two issues together – or the negative impacts of failing to do so. The UK is currently facing unprecedented labour shortages, in no small part due to recent increases in long-term sickness, with an additional 500,000 adults becoming economically inactive since 2019. Poor health is simultaneously damaging the UK’s economic growth prospects and increasing the spending needed to provide a safety net to the growing number of people with long-term or complex health issues. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts spending on health and disability related benefits will be £8.2bn higher than previously forecast by 2026/27.

With the NHS in crisis, struggling to keep up with waiting lists and maintain staffing levels, we need to take every opportunity to help people stay healthier for longer. Doing so requires us to widen our understanding of what drives good health and wellbeing.

Almost every aspect of our lives impacts our health and ultimately how long we will live. This includes our jobs and homes, access to education and public transport, and whether we experience poverty or discrimination. These factors are often referred to as the wider determinants of health. In the public and political debate about how to improve health in the UK, the wider determinants are often left out or misunderstood. People tend to think of health as highly individualistic; it’s the food we eat and how much we exercise.

While most people won’t be shocked to hear the NHS spends an estimated £6.5bn every year on obesity related diseases, people tend to be less aware that health issues relating to poor-quality housing are costing the NHS £1.4bn a year. Despite being a clear driver of ill health, poor-quality housing has only recently garnered significant political attention in light of the tragic death of Awaab Ishak. This is just one example of the costs of failing to tackle inequalities.

Continuing to view health solely through the lens of individual behaviours can only result in ever worsening consequences for our economy and ever fewer opportunities for the general public to live fulfilling and productive lives. For those already experiencing the highest levels of disadvantage, improving how we view health is quite literally a matter of life or death – with people living in the least affluent areas of the UK dying up to 13.7 years earlier than those living in the most affluent areas.

Health Equals is a new coalition bringing together the UK’s leading voices on housing, business, mental health, education, and health care. Including the Confederation of British Industry, Trades Union Congress, Local Government Association, Shelter, Mind, and the Health Foundation – the membership has come together in recognition that the varied work they do is fundamentally linked to health.

Together, we will be calling on our politicians to adopt a holistic approach to preventing avoidable ill health, encompassing all of the issues that mean many people are not living as long or as healthy lives as they could be. In our current economic circumstances, more than ever before, it is vital that we unlock the potential of all of our people by tackling the health problems we can only fix when we act collectively.

By taking action to view health as something that is shaped by our experiences and the areas in which we live, we can take more preventative action to reduce ill health. And, when we have a healthier population, we have a society with more opportunities and more people driving the UK towards our full potential.

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