Infant mortality gap between the rich and poor worsens

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The health gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically despite Tony Blair's pledge to slash it, new official figures reveal.

The number of babies who died before their first birthday is now 19 per cent higher among working-class families than the rest of the population. Life expectancy in the poorest fifth of the UK continues to lag behind better-off areas, especially among women.

The shaming new figures are contained in a progress report quietly slipped into the House of Commons library by the Department of Health on Wednesday.

The same day Mr Blair boasted that "on every score - health, education and crime - things are better today than they were in 1997", it was revealed that the Government is failing to deliver one of its key targets. With less than five years to go, no one now expects it to meet its stated aim of reducing the infant mortality gap between rich and poor by 10 per cent.

Instead the last three years for which data are available have seen the the class gap in the numbers of babies who die before their first birthday widen from 13 to 19 per cent.

Downing Street is so worried about the widening health gap that it is to announce significant extra cash next week. Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, admitted much more needed to be done. "Health inequalities are widely recognised as stubborn, persistent and very resistant to change," he said.

Guy Palmer, a director of the New Policy Institute, said: "Health inequality is not about access to healthcare or variations in its quality but about a host of cultural and lifestyle factors."