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Britain’s hidden health crisis: How overcrowded housing may be spreading Covid-19

New Statesman analysis reveals cramped housing conditions could be increasing coronavirus transmission, disproportionately endangering society’s most vulnerable.

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With workplaces, restaurants, gyms and cinemas largely closed for the last year, Britons have spent more time than ever at home.

For some, this meant setting up a home office in the guest bedroom, picking up gardening or redecorating the living room. For many families, however, it meant being cramped in small rooms which made working from home and self-isolation difficult, if not impossible.

More than one million households in England and Wales were overcrowded in 2011, official figures from the most recent census show, meaning they had fewer bedrooms than they required.

Given that population growth has outstripped new housing supply since then, that number has likely risen.

Widespread overcrowding may have played an important role in the spread of Covid-19, a New Statesman analysis reveals.

Comparing census bedroom occupancy figures with the number of Covid-19 cases per capita in local authorities in England and Wales, our analysis shows a correlation between the number of overcrowded homes in an area and the number of Covid-19 cases, and deaths.

The London borough of Newham, where one in four homes (25.2 per cent) were overcrowded at the time of the census, also has one of the highest numbers of confirmed coronavirus tests per capita.

The crowded boroughs of Brent (17.7 per cent), Tower Hamlets (16.4 per cent) and Barking and Dagenham (13.5 per cent) have also recorded some of the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections.

 

 

Meanwhile, only 3.8 per cent of homes in the more affluent Richmond-upon-Thames were overcrowded. The borough has London’s second lowest per capita rate of Covid-19 confirmed cases.

The map below shows an estimate of how overcrowded homes are distributed across London. Some neighbourhoods are dominated by overcrowded homes, while others have plenty of space. For clarity, we’ve only included overcrowded and under-occupied homes:

 

The correlation between overcrowding and a faster spread of Covid-19 doesn't necessarily mean that one causes the other. Other factors, such as age or income, could play a role in both.

Nevertheless, research shows a link between crowding and public health unrelated to Covid-19. One 2019 study found that overcrowding in Johannesburg, South Africa, was associated with higher levels of acute respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms such as fevers and chills.

A 2015 Building Research Establishment report estimated that poor housing is costing the NHS some £1.4bn a year, with overcrowding alone costing £2.3m a year.

More recent research has shown that the spread of coronavirus has also been facilitated by overcrowding. One scientific study found that crowding stands out as a factor influencing Covid-19 infection risk, though it notes that the effect is difficult to quantify.

The study also notes that overcrowding is closely linked to socio-economic status: affluent people will generally have more space, and are more likely to work from home and be able to avoid public transport.

In the UK, Brits from ethnic minority backgrounds were several times more likely to live in overcrowded households, as were those on lower incomes, renters and essential workers.

The problem is only getting worse. While owner-occupiers have managed to maintain a comfortable level of space in their homes, overcrowding has boomed among renters, especially social renters.

 

Overcrowding poses serious risks to physical and mental well-being. The fact that we’re seeing more of it, especially among Britain’s poorest, means housing inequality is becoming more acute.

A Health Foundation report highlights that investments in building better homes and improving existing ones may not only help Britain’s housing problems, but it could also support the post-Covid economic recovery.

It is important to note that overcrowding is not necessarily the same as high urban density. High-density cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei were successful in reducing the number of cases and deaths, and analysis of cases in Los Angeles found overcrowded and poor areas suffered more coronavirus cases than those with higher housing density.

It is not living in cities that poses health risks: it is poor planning and inadequate housing that negatively affects city-dwellers.

To protect us from future crises, we need to provide better, more affordable housing, with access to more private and public green spaces, more walking and cycling routes and more opportunities for outdoor activities.

Until then, those living in the most disadvantaged communities will pay the price of our fast-developing cities.

[see also: Why green spaces are vital for the UK’s levelling up agenda]

Nicu Calcea is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group