We are facing down a humanitarian crisis in the UK this winter. A country exhausted by a pandemic, soaring inflation and generation-terrifying energy costs is holding its breath and hoping government will do something.
There is a long, hard winter ahead, but it will not be equally difficult for everybody. As with previous crises, we are not all in it together. The people hardest hit will be those already disadvantaged and vulnerable, particularly poor children and the elderly in the north of England. And it is vital to get a sense of the scale of just how different the experience of this winter will be – otherwise we will be unable to direct help to where it is needed most.
A report by University College London’s Institute of Health Equity this month showed that, prior to the government’s financial intervention, fuel poverty was expected to reach 55 per cent by January next year, causing a significant humanitarian crisis with thousands of lives lost and millions of children’s development blighted. As the think tanks the Resolution Foundation together with the Centre for Cities have found, between 2021-22 and 2023-24 typical incomes are set to fall by 10 per cent.
Even before inflationary pressures kicked in, the Child of the North report, by the Northern Health Science Alliance and N8 Research Partnership, highlighted the shocking and unsustainable health inequalities that blight children’s life chances in the north of England. We found children in the region had a 27 per cent chance of living in poverty compared to 20 per cent in the rest of England, and a 58 per cent chance of living in a local authority with above average levels of low-income families compared to 19 per cent in the rest of England.
The report found that compared to children in England as a whole, children in the north are more likely to die under the age of one. We are not providing the basic conditions that allow children to flourish in the UK, baking in vulnerability to crises in our population as we have seen with the pandemic. This will incur huge costs in the future, and will be compounded over coming months. Children will die unnecessarily because of the unravelling fuel crisis unless policymakers act urgently and for the long term.
Levelling down on a massive scale is set to take place unless the degradation of people’s lives across the UK isn’t halted by significant government action, and children in the north will be hit hardest with the effects lasting longer.
Decades of underfunding in children’s services in the north has already had a devastating impact – the report shows spending on Sure Start centres in the north was cut by £412 per eligible child compared to by £283 in the rest of England.
Compounding this has been the effects of the pandemic on children in the region, which they are still struggling to recover from – seen clearly in the widening attainment gap in GCSEs this year. Children in the north missed more schooling in lockdown than their peers in the rest of England. Only 14 per cent received four or more pieces of offline schoolwork per day compared with 20 per cent nationwide. They spent a month and a half longer in the highest levels of lockdown.
Ignoring the impacts on mortality of one of the richest countries in the world, allowing its population to fall into such inequity doesn’t make fiscal sense either. The loss of learning children in the north experienced over the course of the pandemic will cost an estimated £24.6bn in lost wages over their lifetimes. The mental health conditions children in the north developed during the pandemic will cost an estimated £13.2bn in lost wages over their lifetimes.
Allowing the cost-of-living crisis to unfold unfettered cannot be an option. We should be working to improve the lives of children and families so we can create a happy prosperous future for everyone across the UK.
While the solutions to fuel poverty were urgently required in the short term, the problems we face are more systemic. Fuel poverty, food poverty, funeral poverty, furniture poverty, period poverty, digital poverty – ultimately, these deprivations are the expression of a system that is failing to provide sufficient income for families to live healthily.
Poverty is the biggest driver of inequality. It is a toxic exposure that we allow to wash over almost a third of children, holding back development, causing inequalities in childhood that track into adulthood, and significantly influencing inequalities in health and productivity over a lifetime.
The longstanding north-south divide in child health, which largely explains the north-south divide in adult health and economic productivity, was increasing before the Covid-19 pandemic and as a result of the pandemic has been made much worse. Inaction around the cost-of-living crisis will lead to catastrophic levels of poverty. To “level up”, we must prioritise the physical and mental health of families with children. This requires a focus on reducing inequalities in the main upstream influences on health.
So what can be done? Government needs to immediately invest in welfare, health and social care systems that support children’s health, particularly in deprived areas, and offer rapid, focused investment in early years services. It should also increase child benefit by £10 per child per week, the child element in Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits. We must feed our children by introducing universal free school meals, making the holiday activities and food programme schemes permanent and extend to support all low-income families. It should also promote the provision of Healthy Start vouchers to all children under five.
We support the urgent setting up of a national fuel poverty strategy with ring-fenced funding to enable local government to sustainably plan and support local populations, proportionate to need. There should also be national policy interventions to address household incomes and energy need.
We’re at the edge of a precipice in the country that could see millions of people plunged into fuel poverty and struggling to cope. Children will suffer most – and because of its widespread deprivation – children in the north will be hardest hit, in their health, education and future. It’s time to stop being complacent and tackle the crisis in front of us.