NHS money should be focused on poor areas, voters say

Andrew Grice
Thursday 13 September 2007 00:00 BST

The Government is under pressure to close Britain's "health inequalities" gap amid growing public concern that the poorest people get a raw deal from the National Health Service.

More than three out of four people (77 per cent) believe ministers should ensure that life expectancy rates are broadly the same nationwide, while only 13 per cent disagree, a survey suggested yesterday.

Across Britain, the poorest people live for an average of 76.2 years, while the richest live for 80.4 years. Life expectancy in Manchester is 74.8 years, while in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea it is 82.4 years.

Half of the population (49 per cent) believes money needs to be switched to poorer areas, according to the YouGov poll of 3,000 people carried out for the Fabian Society, the influential socialist movement with close links to the Labour Party. Forty per cent want to see a reduction or slower rise in NHS spending in more affluent areas to pay for it, and only 9 per cent favour an increase in taxes. But 35 per cent people think the "health gap" would not be narrowed by spending money, researchers found.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State of Health, admitted yesterday that Labour needed to close the gap between rich and poor. He said: "We have to break the links between lack of wealth and poor health: giving everyone the chance to contribute fully to society, whether they are born in a council estate or on a country estate."

In his first major speech since his appointment in June, he promised that improving the health of the poorest people would be one of his priorities. A strategy for tackling inequality and covering access to care and better prevention would be published next year, Mr Johnson added. "There can be no more chilling form of inequality than someone's social status at birth determining the timing of their death," he said. "Infant mortality among low-skilled workers is almost twice that among professionals. And, for every stop on the Jubilee line between Westminster and Canning Town, life expectancy goes down by one year. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates have all improved in the past decade. However, the depressing truth remains that we have not made enough progress in reducing health inequalities."

Further pressure on the Government will come from the Fabian Society next month when it launches a health inequalities forum.

The YouGov poll also casts doubt on plans being considered by all the main political parties to devolve more decisions about health to a local level. There is deep public concern that this would create a "postcode lottery" within the NHS. More than 80 per cent of respondents said patients throughout Britain should have the same access to treatment and services wherever they lived, with rules decided nationally rather than locally. Only 11 per cent thought the NHS would work better if priorities were decided locally.

Fifty-one per cent believed there had been progress towards universal healthcare since Labour came to power in 1997 but 28 per cent thought that no progress had been made and 15 per cent believed the NHS had "gone backwards".

People are more relaxed about patients going private for treatment than sending their children to private schools, it seems. Sixty-nine per cent of those polled said high quality NHS treatment could be provided for all, alongside the right of people to be seen privately.

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