Poverty and Health Inequalities – What Can We Do?

Last week the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, came up to Lancashire. He spent the morning in Blackpool and then came over to see us in Morecambe Bay for the afternoon. It was an absolute pleasure to meet him and to welcome him here. He came to listen – the mark a genuinely kind and caring leader. More importantly he came to listen to people who live in these Northern Coastal Communities, to really hear what life is like and to allow that to impact his thinking and he prepares to develop further strategy on tackling poverty and health inequalities. As an epidemiologist, he is grounded in data and understands the issues at hand. What I really valued was his humanity and humility as he listened to the stories of people who live and work here.

 

Last year, the Home Secretary, Pritti Patel also visited Morecambe Bay. She came to Barrow-in-Furness and spent some time at The Well, a CIC which works with people in recovery from addiction and of which I am a Director. In an interview afterwards, she was asked about the impact of Austerity and the reality of poverty in communities like ours (4 in 10 children in Barrow grow up in poverty). Her answer was that poverty is not the (sole) responsibility of government. I put sole in brackets, because she tried to insinuate that the role of central government in tackling poverty that exists in local areas is very minimal compared to the responsibility of local government (who have had their funding massively cut by central government in the last 10 years), local schools, local public services and local businesses. I’ve really wrestled with what she said since that time because she’s not altogether wrong! But nor is she right! Of course Central Government has a huge role to play in tackling poverty. It’s undeniable that national policy, economic strategy, including taxation, land ownership and business development all have massive implications. But poverty doesn’t only exist because of Central Government. Health Inequalities do not just exist because of Central Government. I am not for one minute, negating or diminishing their role, but we do have to all ask ourselves why we see and tolerate such inequality and what we can all do to change this narrative. Because as Michael Marmot reminds us so powerfully in his book ‘The Health Gap’ – none of this is inevitable and it certainly doesn’t have to continue. Marmot holds that “if you want to understand why health is distributed the way it is, you have to understand society.” So if we want to understand society, then as Prof Bev Skeggs (Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University) so eloquently says: “Society is shaped by our values and what we value“.

 

If we are serious about ‘levelling up’, ‘resetting’ and tackling age old health inequalities then we have to understand that this is both complex, but also entirely possible and need not take 100 years! As Marmot says in his amazing book ‘The Health Gap’ – essential reading for anyone who cares about this issue – we must do something and we must do it now! Marmot’s research proves that health inequalities are not a footnote to the health problems we face, they are the major health problem. We can actually make significant and measurable differences in a short space of time – so why aren’t we doing more? In the rest of this blog I hope to look at how we can make a real difference to poverty and health inequalities in our communities. We all have a part to play, no matter who we are. This is absolutely an issue for central and local government, but it is also an issue for society as a whole in all its facets.

 

Prof Imogen Tyler has written a phenomenal book called ‘Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality’. It is, in my opinion, the most important book published this year (I know that sounds like an overstatement, but it isn’t!). I believe this must be our starting point when we talk about poverty and health inequality. If we don’t understand how we have all subconsciously and/or overtly accepted a narrative that ‘the poor are feckless and lazy and could just pull themselves up by their boot straps if they wanted to, because we all have the same opportunities,’ then we are blind to the reality of the stigma that surrounds poverty and how it is weaponised to maintain the status quo. The thing is – it’s not just the government who have used this narrative – it’s part of British culture. So many of our comedy programmes ridicule and scapegoat the poorest in our society – The Harry Enfield Show (‘The Slobs’), and Little Britain (Vicky Pollard) to name just two. think of how many reality TV shows, like ‘Benefits Street’ have reinforced the stereotypes. Our national press continue to bombard us with very particular perspectives on ‘benefits scroungers‘ and ‘migrant swarms‘ and we read it, we drink it in, and whether we like it or not, it embeds itself as a way of thinking in our minds. That’s how propaganda works. It creates a corporate mindset by ‘othering’ our fellow human beings and pitting us against one another, rather than bringing us together to collaboratively find solutions in a way that works for everyone.  It takes significant and sustained effort to do our own internal work around stigma, racism, white privilege, sexism and toxic masculinity. But if we want to build a society shaped by our values and what we really value then whoever we are – this is where we must begin. Our first work is to demolish the strongholds in our minds, challenge our unconscious biases and undo our ‘go to’ narratives, replacing them with deeper and better truths about the innate value in every human life. We must be determined to create the kind of language which reflects this because language gives substance to our thoughts and beliefs. This important work needs to weave its way through every part of our education system. This will take effect in shifting the corporate mindset through the way we teach history in our schools, for example, with a more honest appraisal of the negative effects of colonialism, or indeed how the feudal system continues to dominate the price of land and the unaffordability of good quality housing. We need to equip the rising generation with the tools they will need to undo the damaging ideologies of stigma and find solutions to the issues they are facing around social justice and climate change.

 

Imogen draws on the work of The Poverty Truth Commission, here in Morecambe Bay and in other places to highlight ways in which we can break down stigma, build friendships and create a kinder society. The Poverty Truth Commission gives us a real insight not only into how we break down stigma, but how the building of friendships across the dividing walls in our society creates a new political space from which we can create ‘the good life’ together. Our political systems have become far too removed from every day life and we need a radical shift from disengagement to much wider participation in community life and decision making. There are so many voices calling for this from all sides of the political spectrum. We so badly need to break out of our entrenched twitter-siloed positions and learn to curate the space for a more collaborative and co-operative form of political and economic conversation and prioritisation. It is, in my view, impossible to think about breaking down health inequalities without involving those who experience them most severely to be a part of finding the solutions. For further reading on this: Radical Help by Hilary Cottam, Rekindling Democracy by Cormac Russell and Greed is Dead: Politics After Individualism by Paul Collier and John Kay are all vital texts. This requires a much more local, devolved, participatory kind of politics – the kind of thing made possible through initiatives like ‘The Art of Hosting’, ‘Citizens Jurys’ and ‘People’s Assemblies’ underpinned by principles of love and kindness. In this way we can create much more realistic ‘deals’ (like the one in Wigan) between public sector organisations and people in our communities. This might all sound a bit wishy washy, but as Marmot demonstrates, “the lower people are in the socio-economic hierarchy, the less control people have over their lives.’ He argues that “tackling disempowerment is crucial for improving health and improving health equity” This is where the circular arguments about absolute or relative poverty are missing the point. When Philip Hammond stated as Chancellor of the Exchequer that he ‘doesn’t see poverty in the UK‘ – he was talking about absolute poverty and implying it isn’t an issue in the UK. He’s profoundly wrong. Economist Amartya Sen helps us understand this: “Relative inequality with respect to income translates into absolute inequality in capabilities: your freedom to be and do. It is not only how much money you have that matters for your health, but what you can do with what you have; which in turn, will be influenced by where you are.” Marmot argues that this means people in this position cannot participate in society with dignity. It is this active participation in ones own life and the life of the community around you, coupled with a sense that you can be part of the change that needs to happen which underpins the strap line for the poverty truth commission. “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” If we want to tackle poverty and health inequalities in our society we have to radically include those who are currently most marginalised to be part of the change with us. We’re not trying to fix them. Together, we are trying to untangle the injustice that allows this kind of staggering inequality to continue.

 

The NHS is currently exploring its own role in tackling poverty and health inequalities. As the biggest employer in the country it has the opportunity to make a massive difference as an Anchor Institution, setting a good example and creating a network, both locally and nationally for other partners to collaborate with. Along with other local employers it can make a vast difference through positive employment schemes for people from poorer communities, paying a living wage, procuring locally and developing apprenticeship schemes, to name just a few ideas. We have developed a charter in Lancashire and South Cumbria, which we hope will be nationally available soon. I’ve previously written on the role of Primary Care Networks (PCNs) and how taking a ‘radical help’ approach with our communities could make a real difference at a local level. PCNs have a particular role in Population Health Management. This approach that we are focusing on across Lancashire and South Cumbria uses the best in data science and enables health teams to focus in on the areas of greatest need, working with those communities to bring about change through co-creation. If the NHS is really serious about ‘levelling up’, however, one thing which must be explored is the national funding formula. If we’re serious about Population Health, we must be much more comfortable with allocating resources according to Indices of Multiple Deprivation. We must also change what we measure and ensure that Key Performance Indicators and clinical funding streams are much more aligned to this entire agenda. Incentives do change behaviour and we need to make sure that we’re getting them right, whilst permissioning PCNs, in particular, to have a change in focus. We need to make it more attractive to work in areas of higher complexity and create more sustainable models of care. It is my belief that without a Health Inequalities lead at the top table of NHS England and Improvement, the right level of accountability and prioritisation simply won’t be there. It won’t be enough just to have someone accountable in each system, vital though this is. Integrated Care Systems must take an evidence-based approach and recognise what a profound difference they can make in a short space of time. The drivers in the system must be wedded to this way of working. The NHS must stop spending such a colossal amount of money tinkering around the edges of helping people to live a bit longer and get deep into the game of tackling the vast and ongoing health inequalities in our society. It must use it’s powerful voice to continually challenge policies which make this worse and actively campaign to make society more equitable. Marmot and The King’s Fund have already detailed so much that the NHS can do. Olivia Butterworth and Sara Bordoley and their teams are doing some great things. We need more of it! It’s time to act!

 

The issue of land and the lack of affordable housing has a huge effect on people being locked in cycles of poverty and creates massive health inequalities. Central Government has a huge role in sorting this out, but increased devolution may make it become easier with increased public participation in the daily politics of life. Most of the way our land is distributed and inflated was designed in the 11th Century and through the Middle Ages. Alistair Parvin has written the most phenomenal piece on this issue and it deserves time to be read and digested. He makes a very tight case as to why we find ourselves in the situation we are in, but encouragingly he comes up with some really possible, pragmatic and solutions-focused ideas about how we can solve this, if we want to. Of course there are many vested interested and people in positions of significant power, who would resist such an approach, but we must not let that stop us having some grown-up conversations about this. Parvin accepts that it would take a government with extraordinary vision and bravery to do what is really needed and offers some really helpful pragmatic smaller steps that would get us in the right direction.

 

I am not going to copy and paste his paper here, but I hope this whet’s your appetite enough to seriously engage in the possibilities. We can’t keep passing this ball to future generations. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset our economy and in this time of ‘jubilee‘ we need to grasp this nettle if we are serious about creating a society that truly works for everyone. Mariana Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, Katherine Trebeck and Carlota Perez are just some of the brilliant people creating the kind of economic and technological frameworks we need. It’s time to build an economy of hope, shaped by our values and focusing on what we value. We know that the UK population would like us to place health and wellbeing at the heart of the UK economy instead of GDP – this is a massive shift and one that we must hold onto. This priority along with the creation of more social co-operatives, new local/community banks and credit unions would all help us to create a fairer economy that really works for the people.

 

 

So, we all have a role to play. As individuals, in our communities, through our work and via a more engaged, participatory, devolved, democracy, we need to deal with stigma and ‘wicked issues’, be determined to be more  switched on, truly engaged and find together some pragmatic solutions fit for the 21st century.  Disengagement is not an option. Let us not miss this moment. We can and we must do something. As Michael Marmot says in the final sentence of ‘The Health Gap’: “Do something. Do it more. Do it better.”

Share This:

Share

Test and Trace – Time to Get it Right

taken from weownit.co.uk

Test and Trace is currently an absolute shambolic mess and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Over the weekend, a mum I know of in Morecambe was told to drive over 130 miles to have her children tested, only to find that the centre was shut when she got there! I know of another woman in Skipton (that’s in North Yorkshire, if you’re unsure), being sent to Northern Ireland! This cannot go on. It’s beyond ridiculous! It also massively undermines the idea of levelling up, because families who can’t afford to travel further then have to keep their children out of school for longer, causing further disadvantage to their learning opportunities. Imagine having a fever, feeling unwell and then being asked to drive a long distance to get a test, which should be available in your vicinity. It’s unsafe. It’s also unfair to blame people for booking tests unnecessarily when a) people are only able to get a test if the people employed by Serco allow them to have one, b) children can’t go back into school, once sent home until they are proven ‘negative’ and c) the Prime Minister has promised testing to pretty much everyone via his ‘Moonshot’ approach.

 

It’s vital, as we enter the winter months, to get this right. Our ability to provide safe staffing levels across the NHS and enable schools to function properly genuinely depends on it. Last week at the NHS Assembly we debated the issue and a possible way forward. The contract issued to Serco is clearly not delivering what is needed, and so it’s time to take an honest appraisal of where we are and how we’re going to fix this. I know the Assembly will be writing in an official capacity to Dido Harding, who is currently in charge of the programme. In the mean time, here are my thoughts about what needs to happen now.

 

  1. It’s time to value the brilliant local public health leadership we have in place across the UK and ensure these leaders are supported to lead this work by providing timely data. After investing in the training and expertise of our Directors of Public Health, why on earth at a moment for which they have been trained to provide leadership are we circumnavigating them and making it so much harder for them to do their jobs? It would be worth an apology for not trusting them to do this in the first place and to own up that ‘Serco Test and Trace’ (not ‘NHS Test and Trace’) has failed in its task.
  2. We must ensure that local councils and Directors of Public Health have the resources necessary to lead the local test and trace approach and ensure they have the necessary powers to intervene where needed.
  3. The whole system must work – so we need to create more capacity in the laboratories across the UK to turn around results in a timely fashion.
  4. It’s vital that we engage regularly with local communities of many different kinds and their leaders to ensure they understand where things are up to, how we can work together to keep people safe and debunk any myths that are developing, whilst holding space for the uncertainty of the moment.
  5. Therefore we need clear, comprehensible messages to the public – we need to empower/permission local teams to lead on this messaging in a way that makes sense for their communities without constantly needing to check back with the centre. This comes down to trust.
  6. The NHS and Local/National Government need to become much more comfortable with using different communication channels like WhatsApp – and for young people Instagram, YouTube and Tik Tok – because this is what young people are using now to the exclusion of nearly everything else…..if we have unclear messaging and then don’t even use the platforms that young people are using, we have no right to scapegoat them (which is terrible practice anyway!).
  7. It’s really important that testing capacity is available rapidly and flexibly in areas with outbreaks. With the R number rising as it is and the current farce around availability of local tests, we simply can’t afford for this to continue.
  8. We must recognise the value of and therefore ensure early intervention and action ,rather than delaying decisions. This has been highlighted by Sir Jeremy Farrar, CEO of The Wellcome Trust and member of SAGE in some current learning form Marseilles, where the hospitals are back at the point of saturation.

 

I’m not sure how or why it was decided that Serco should run this show in the first place. However it’s clearly not working. It’s time to make brave decisions. It’s time to get this local and focused. It’s time to get this right. Our lives may actually depend on it.

Share This:

Share

Why The Loss of Public Health England Really Matters

Tweet Yesterday, I tweeted that I think Dido Harding, the Chair of NHS Improvement and newly appointed head of the newly established National Institute for Public Protection (NIPP), which is to replace Public Health England (PHE), is a good leader. I say this, having met her and few times, through the NHS Assembly and her genuinely humble [Continue Reading …]

Share

Obesity (Part 1) – Breaking The Stigma, Finding The Solutions

Tweet   Last week Boris Johnson declared that we must do more to tackle Obesity, as the evidence has shown that it is a significant risk factor in increased mortality from Covid-19. Why it has taken this Coronavirus to wake the government up, I’m not quite sure, when we’ve known about the risk from obesity in [Continue Reading …]

Share

The Future NHS and Care System – PCNs as Building Blocks

Tweet I recently wrote a blog about reimagining health and care in this apocalyptic moment. In this post, I want to put a bit more flesh on the bones of what that might actually look in the context of the NHS, here in the UK and particularly, England.   Let me just make a few [Continue Reading …]

Share

Should The Schools Go Back on June 1st?

Share This: Tweet Is the decision to send some of our children back to school on June 1st the right one? What are the factors that have been considered and how has the decision been made? I”ve been asked these questions a number of times and they bother me at several levels. They bother me [Continue Reading …]

Share

Reimagining Health and Care – An Apocalyptic Moment?

Tweet   There is a ‘kairos moment’ available to us to reimagine how we think about health and care, here in the UK and indeed globally. It’s true that COVID-19 is going to continue to take our attention and shape our health and care services in a particular way for many months ahead. But some [Continue Reading …]

Share

Good Grief

Tweet The world has changed. We cannot go back to where we were, nor continue to head in the same direction we were set upon before this crisis. But that is easier said than done and will be impossible if we do not embrace the grief of what we are journeying through together. There has [Continue Reading …]

Share

A Regenerated World

Tweet Kate Raworth’s work on the Doughnut Economy over the last few years has been nothing short of extraordinary. She has torn up the economic text books of the last 150 years and asked some much better and kinder questions about the future we need. It is so exciting to read that in collaboration with [Continue Reading …]

Share