The country’s most senior female bishop has launched a scathing attack on the government, accusing it of “burying its head in the sand” over “shocking” and “widespread” health inequalities.
Dame Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, spoke out after the Guardian reported that Thérèse Coffey was backing out of the government’s long-promised white paper on health inequalities.
The document was due months ago as part of the government’s pledge to lift the UK up. It had to take “bold action” to narrow the growing inequalities in health outcomes that exist between the poorest and the richest, between white and black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and between those in the north and south.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) denied that Coffey, the health secretary, had decided not to publish the white paper.
Mullally, the first woman to hold the office of Bishop of London and the country’s third-highest-ranking bishop, said immediate action was needed to tackle the “increasingly visible” inequalities in health care.
“In our quest to improve health outcomes, we can leave no man, woman or child behind,” she said. “That’s why recent reports of the government’s scrapping of its white paper on healthcare inequities are hard to swallow.”
Mullaly, who will this week publish a report she commissioned on health inequalities in the capital, added: “I sincerely hope the government will join us in looking for solutions rather than burying our heads in the sand.”
Her intervention follows a series of Guardian stories over the past 12 months revealing the true scale of health inequality in the UK.
In April, the Guardian revealed that women in the poorest areas of England die earlier than the average woman in almost every comparable country in the world.
Millions of women living in the poorest areas can expect to live 78.7 years, almost eight years less than those living in the wealthiest areas of England. It is worse than the average life expectancy for women in every single OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country except Mexico.
The rigorous analysis also revealed that the average life expectancy of all women in England and the UK is lower than the OECD average in the world. The UK ranks 25th out of 38 OECD countries when it comes to the number of years a woman can expect to live on average.
A DHSC spokesman said at the time: “We are committed to equalizing health across the country and our white paper on health inequalities, due to be published later this year, will set out action to reduce the gap in health outcomes between different places , so people’s backgrounds don’t dictate their prospects for healthy living.” The White Paper never appeared.
Mullally, who was previously chief nurse in England, said: “It is truly shocking that women in the poorest areas of England are dying almost a decade before their wealthier counterparts. No one should have to accept living a shorter or unhealthier life just because of where they live. These inequalities need to be addressed and it is worrying how far inequalities have fallen on the government’s agenda.
“The reality of health care disparities in our nation is undeniable. In recognition of this inequality, the Johnson government announced its intention to issue a white paper investigating such inequalities. I certainly hope that this vital work will be continued.”
The Health Disparities Action Group (HIAG), a multi-faith initiative led by Mullally, is expected to make 14 recommendations to address health disparities when it releases its report this week.
Separately, more than 155 members of the Health Inequalities Alliance (IHA), convened by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), signed a joint letter to Coffey urging her to publish a white paper on health inequalities.
In February, Sajid Javid, the then health secretary, told MPs he would publish “in the spring of 2022” a white paper on “health differences”. The document never appeared and was a notable omission from Coffey’s new 14-page “Our Plan for Patients.”
Dr Sarah Clarke, President of the RCP, said: “If we are ever to reduce the pressure on the NHS and the demand for services, we need to tackle the root causes of ill health. This requires a specific cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities – one that looks at every policy lever in government to tackle the factors that make people sick in the first place.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “It is incorrect to say that the white paper on health inequalities has been scrapped. No decisions have been made and we will update next steps in due course.
“We are committed to improving the nation’s health so that everyone can live longer, healthier lives, and we have put women’s health at the top of the agenda by publishing a women’s health strategy and appointing the first-ever You are the Women’s Health Ambassador for England.
“Our Office for Health Improvement and Disparities works to reduce unacceptable health disparities by focusing on places and communities where ill health is most prevalent and life expectancy is lowest.”