UK’s economic policies could cause ‘many more deaths’ than COVID – with government urged to protect the ‘most vulnerable’

Ambulances queuing outside of St Thomas' Hospital, London

The government’s economic policies could be causing “many more deaths” than the COVID-19 pandemic, an academic has warned.

In the space of eight years, almost 335,000 more deaths than expected were recorded across England, Wales and Scotland, researchers have found.

The “not only shocking but shameful” statistic is thought to show the “damaging impact” of difficult economic situations caused by the government reducing public spending.

Experts at Glasgow University and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) looked at data on deaths in the three nations from 2012 until 2019.

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“This study shows that in the UK a great many more deaths are likely to have been caused by UK government economic policy than by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ruth Dundas, a professor of social epidemiology at the University of Glasgow and one of the authors of the report.

In its findings, the report stated there was now a “clear and urgent need… for such harmful policies to be reversed” and its authors urged the government to “implement measures to protect the most vulnerable in society”.

The research was carried out amid a “stalling of improvement overall” in mortality rates, with the number of deaths among the poorest members of society increasing since the early 2010s.

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What did the study find?

From 2012, until 2019, 334,327 more people died than expected across England, Wales and Scotland, and more than half of them were men.

Among women, there were 77,173 excess deaths in England and Wales, as well as 6,564 in Scotland.

Published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the study found that previously improving mortality trends changed between 2011 and 2013 in Scotland and England.

This occurred after the Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron, came to power in 2010.

From that time until 2012, death rates among women living in the 20% most deprived areas of England increased by 3%, and they did the same between 2017 and 2019.

In the previous decade, this figured had decreased by around 14%.

In Scotland, the number of premature deaths among the poorest communities increased by 6-7% in the same time frames after declines of 10-20%.

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‘These deaths did not have to happen’

Speaking about the research, Dr David Walsh, the lead author of the paper, said: “These figures are not only shocking but shameful.

“We must remember that these are more than just statistics: they represent hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been cut short, and hundreds of thousands of families who have had to deal with the grief and aftermath of those deaths.

“The tragic thing is that these deaths did not have to happen. In the words of the United Nations, in a society as wealthy as the UK, ‘poverty is a political choice’.”

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He urged the government to realise the “damaging impact of austerity” and respond with economic policies that improve life expectancy for everyone.

Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said the “shocking” findings reinforces the “urgent” need for the government to “change course” from its current budget proposals, which have caused concern among many MPs.

“Reinforcing austerity, and imposing deep real terms cuts on welfare payments and on public services as a whole, would simply add to the human toll so starkly illustrated in this study,” he warned.

His comments come amid speculation that the government could cut benefits in a bid to reduce public spending.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak had promised to increase benefits in line with inflation, but current Prime Minister Liz Truss has said a decision on this policy “will be made in due course”.

With a failure to rule out a real-terms cut to benefits, concerns have been raised by Conservative MPs about the impact it may have on families already struggling due to the cost of living crisis.

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