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22 April 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:36am

Government must put the hardest hit first

Why a northern renaissance and a targeted approach to post-Covid support is key to better public health.

By Dr Seamus O'Neill

This pandemic has been an unequal one. It has hit the UK hard and it has impacted communities unevenly. We must now face up to the reality of the economic, health and societal challenges that will arise in the recovery.

As a society we must put the hardest hit first. Deprived communities have been disproportionately impacted economically and in terms of their health, and they risk falling further behind without targeted action and investment from government. There is a very real danger to the cohesion and fabric of society as we know it if we do not get this right.

Improving health for wealth

The Northern Health Science Alliance’s Covid-19 and the Northern Powerhouse report found that an extra 57.7 people per 100,000 died in the north of England than the rest of England during the first wave of the pandemic.

The link between Covid impact and economic output is clear: the effect of the extra deaths described above has an economic impact costing £6.86bn in lost productivity, with further economic and societal damage done by the disproportionate increase in unemployment rates.

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We also know from our Health for Wealth report that improving health in the north to the level of that experienced in the rest of the country would lead to substantial economic gains to the tune of an extra £13.2bn in UK gross value added (GVA). However, we are yet to see any meaningful progress to address the health gap between the north and the south.

Even before the pandemic there was an undeniable economic case for levelling up. Without immediate action, the pandemic’s effect will be to further increase health inequalities, and we will see towns and cities across the north continue to fall behind the UK averages on health, wealth and opportunity, as ill health, child poverty and mental health issues are exacerbated.

After years of rhetoric from government about levelling up, the need has never been greater for this promise to become a reality.

Invest in regional excellence

Every region, city and town has its own challenges but also has its identity, pride, insights and assets. Supporting local institutions to mobilise these and invest in ways to realise their potential for future economic growth will benefit the regions, and the UK as a whole.

In the north, health innovation has been identified as a prime capability. The region has world-leading health research and life sciences assets that are essential to the communities they serve. With the right level of investment in areas of acknowledged excellence for the north, such as data, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced therapeutics, diagnostics, medtech, and mental health innovation, there is a huge opportunity to bring significant economic benefits through job creation, and to improve health and well-being. This is the win-win we have offered government in our Connected Health North proposal, but it relies on targeted investment and a willingness to acknowledge that those who have been left behind should now be prioritised.

People first

Over the past 12 months we have seen a perfect storm. The pandemic struck communities hardest where the economic resilience was low due to austerity and prolonged disadvantage. This impact will be further exacerbated by Brexit and the combination will be most keenly felt in the north. Many communities across the country will continue to feel the impact of these policies more than most and will continue to conclude that they are being excluded or forgotten.

Regions that have been hit harder by the pandemic should receive greater support to enable health and economic inequalities to be tackled at a regional level. Left-behind communities within regions, such as coastal or rural areas, must also be prioritised with support to ensure they feel included in the recovery.

There is undoubtedly a long road ahead and we will be fighting on many fronts, but the government must seize the opportunity to level up the health and wealth of the north. A place-based approach that recognises the important role that towns, cities and regions can play in sustaining the recovery will be crucial in the country’s post-Covid economic success.

Séamus O’Neill is chief executive of the Northern Health Science Alliance.

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