Massive impact of Covid on North revealed in hard-hitting new report

By Graeme Whitfield

The huge health, social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the North has been laid bare in a report that outlines how existing inequalities made the outbreak worse for many people in the region.

The study by the North Health Science Alliance, Policy@Manchester and northern National Institute for Health Research Applied Research Collaboration found that the North had higher death rates – particularly in care homes – and was seeing a larger mental health toll as a result of various local and national lockdowns.

The region’s economy has also taken a massive hit, with the report estimating that increased mortality in the North could lead to a £7.3bn slump in productivity, while the wage gap between the North and the rest of England grew.

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Now the report’s authors are calling for a tailored package of support for the region to help it recover from the pandemic, with a warning that “the productivity gap between the North and the rest of the country is likely to worsen for subsequent generations without a Covid-19 recovery strategy that prioritises families with children.”

Among measures being called for are specific vaccination programmes for vulnerable people in the North and a package of measures to tackle child poverty.

That call comes after the NHSA study found that people living in the North had a 17% higher mortality rate due to Covid-19 than those in the rest of England, with a significant proportion of the increased mortality linked to potentially preventable higher deprivation and worse pre-pandemic health.

Hospitals also came under more pressure, the report found.

On average, people in the North had 41 days more of the toughest coronavirus restrictions, and the £7.3bn hit to the region’s economy is said to be “likely to be a conservative underestimate”.

Meanwhile, the North saw a larger drop in mental wellbeing, more loneliness, and higher rates of antidepressant prescriptions.

Prof Clare Bambra of Newcastle University, one of the report’s authors, said: “Our report shows how regional health inequalities before Covid have resulted in an unequal pandemic – with higher rates of ill health, death and despair in the North.

Prof Clare Bambra, Newcastle University (publicity handout from Newcastle University)

“The economic impact of the lockdown is also looking likely to exacerbate the regional economic divide.

“The Government’s levelling up agenda needs to seriously address health inequalities in the North – for all generations.”

Health inequalities lead for the Northern Health Science Alliance, Hannah Davies, added: “As we approach autumn with uncertainty around an expected increase in Covid-19 cases and with increasing questions about what ‘levelling up’ will mean for the North of England, it is clear significant action must be taken in tackling health inequalities.

“The Government has made clear its commitment to levelling up and to tackling health inequalities; this report shows the importance of making that a reality with significant funding to tackle ill health through significant investment into public health and the NHS in the North of England.”

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The Northern Health Sciences Alliance has previously published research which showed how relative poor health in the North held back the region’s economy, as well as affecting thousands of individual lives. It estimated that improving health in the North could generate more than £13.2bn for the UK economy.

The new report was compiled by academics from Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and York.

It has been published the day after plans for the “biggest catch-up programme” for the NHS were been unveiled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as part of an wide-ranging announcement on the future of social care in the UK.

The Government has also been forced to defend its plans to scrap the £20 increase in universal credit after a wide range of health bodies and other campaign groups, including a number based in the North, said it would push thousands of children into poverty.

Shadow Treasury minister and Sunderland MP Bridget Phillipson criticised the plans, asking if it was “really an act of decency”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “I don’t accept that people will be forced into poverty, because we know...the best way to take people out of poverty is to find them high-quality work.”

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