UK warned that youth unemployment is 'public health time bomb waiting to explode'

World Health Organisation also flags up that we lag behind EU neighbours in child death rates and women's life expectancy

Health Reporter

Youth unemployment in the UK and throughout Europe is a "public health time bomb waiting to explode" the World Health Organisation has warned.

In the wake of the economic downturn, the UK also lags behind many of its European neighbours for key health indicators such as death of children under 5 and women's life expectancy, according to the findings of a major two-year review led by the public health expert Professor Sir Michael Marmot.

The Czech Republic, Slovenia and Greece all had lower child mortality rates than the UK and life expectancy for women in Spain, Italy and Cyprus exceeded UK rates.

Prof Marmot said that the UK was "failing too many of our children, women and young people on a grand scale."

Despite a tentative economic recovery, youth unemployment in the UK remains high, with more than one million 16 to 24-year-olds still classified as Neets - not in employment, education or training.

The problem is even more severe elsewhere in Europe. Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 56 per cent and in Greece the figure is closer to 65 per cent.

Poverty associated with high unemployment is closely associated with a higher likelihood of poor diet, smoking and long-term health problems like obesity. Prof Marmot said that poor health at such a crucial time of life was saving up problems for later generations.

"Unemployment may be falling in the UK, but persistent high levels of the number of young people over 18 not in employment, education or training is storing up a public health time bomb waiting to explode," said Prof Marmot.

He also highlighted the UK's failure to tackle health inequalities. The UK's child poverty rate is comparable to that of Hungary, and higher than that of Ireland, but both these countries do more to reduce poverty by redistributing wealth through taxes and welfare.

"In the UK we have chosen to have relatively high child poverty rates," he said. "It's a policy choice."

Child poverty rates are defined by the number people under the age of 18 living in households which have an income below 60 per cent of the national median average. Nearly one in every four children in the UK is in this group. Government statistics suggest that less than half of these children reach a good level of educational development. Poorer education was also closely associated with worse health outcomes later in life.

 

For under 5s mortality, the UK, which had a rate of 5.4 deaths per 1,000 children, was behind countries with much weaker economies, such as the Czech Republic, with 3.4 deaths per 1,000, and Slovenia, with 3 deaths per 1,000.

Meanwhile, women in the UK can expect to live to 83 years of age - less than their neighbours in Spain and France, on 85 years, as well as Germany and Cyprus, on 84 years.

The review was carried out by the World Health Organisation and the University College London Institute of Health Equity.

Inequalities in income and health are expanding throughout Europe.

Prof Marmot said that it was too early to say what impact UK government policies since the economic crisis have had on health inequalities, but said that any policy which impacted negatively on people's income, the quality of their housing and their chances of employment should be viewed with concern.

"I would say to any government that cares about the health of its population: look at the impact of their policies on the lives people are able to lead and, more importantly, at the impact on inequality," he said. "Health inequality, arising from social and economic inequalities, are socially unjust, unnecessary and avoidable, and if offends against the human right to health."

A Government spokesperson said: “This report underlines the stubborn and persistent nature of health inequalities across Europe and reinforces the message that people's health is shaped by the conditions in which they live, work and age and that action is needed to improve them.

”The Chief Medical Officer raised this issue in her recent report on children's health, outlining the need to invest early in our young people to give them good foundations and the best start in life. We have already successfully protected the poorest from falling behind and last year we saw a reduction of 100,000 children in workless poor families. In addition, we are training an extra 4,200 health visitors by 2015, and 16,000 of the most vulnerable families will be helped by family nurses.

“We take health inequalities very seriously which is why we have created the first ever specific legal duties on health inequalities for NHS England, clinical commissioning groups, and the Secretary of State and are committed to eradicating child poverty.”

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