Health as a social justice issue

Richard Garside
Friday, 12 February 2010

Alan Johnson has enjoyed a less than glittering career as Home Secretary. His impulsive dismissal of David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs cemented a reputation as a politician uninterested in research evidence. So it is worth remembering that it was Johnson who, as Health Secretary, set up the Strategic Review of Health Inequalities in England, which reported this week.

The report is full of detailed evidence about the scale and impact of health inequalities and a sense of urgency that something must be done. Consider the following, from the chair’s foreword:

'From the outset it was feared that we were likely to make financially costly recommendations. It was put to us that economic calculations would be crucial. Our approach to this was to look at the cost of doing nothing… Doing nothing is not an economic option. The human costs is enormous – 2.5 million years of life potentially lost to health inequalities by those dying prematurely each year in England.'

The report found that the lives of those living in the poorest areas on average is seven years shorter than those living in the richest areas. They also experience ill health earlier in their lives. Health inequalities that are avoidable, the report argues, are unfair. ‘Putting them right is a matter of social justice’.

The report also highlights the health impacts of recession on those who lose their jobs. This graph, from page 27 of the report, compares mortality rates of the employed and unemployed from the early 1980s recession.

Grim stuff.