Our country has become poor and unhealthy – sadly, a million people die early

The latest health statistics show that the NHS only contributes 20% to the nation’s health because our wellbeing is mostly determined by our social circumstances.

This is clear from a new report from University College London which also reveals a second astonishing stat – one million people in England are living shorter lives than they should be. Or, put another way, the number of lives shortened is roughly equivalent in size to the entire population of Birmingham.

The new report Health Inequalities, Lives Cut Short, focuses on the life expectancy of the population who don’t live in the 10% of wealthiest areas. UCL’s Institute of Health ­Equity (IHE) made these calculations from the number of excess deaths – defined as the additional deaths above those in the most advantaged 10% of areas – in the decade from 2011 in England.

The IHE report shows the ­cumulative impact of funding cuts and austerity on life expectancy in the 10% of poorest areas, with health inequalities widening. In 2014, both men and women lived more healthy years than those in the EU. However, by 2017, healthy life years in the UK had stagnated for men, and fallen for women.

IHE director, professor Sir Michael Marmot, said: “Our country has become poor and unhealthy where a few rich, healthy people live. People care about their health, but it is ­deteriorating, with lives shortening, through no fault of their own.

“Political leaders can choose to prioritise everyone’s health, or not. Currently they are not. Action is needed on the social determinants of health – the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These social conditions are the main cases of health inequalities.”

Sir Marmot, a professor of epidemiology at UCL, explained: “In the UK the IHE is working with more than 40 local areas, businesses and other sectors who are taking this broader approach. They are doing their best to protect lives and promote health equity with their dwindling and inadequate funds.

“We know what to do. We are seeing a cultural shift and more action on health inequalities in those areas, where local leaders from different sectors are working together to promote health equity, which is magnificent.” Prof Marmot summed up the current levels of premature deaths as “a dismal state of affairs”.

IHE is calling for an independent Health Equity Commissioner and a health equity and wellbeing cross-departmental committee. I hope that happens.