Action needed to stop COVID widening health inequalities

Pandemic must focus minds on boosting health resilience

1st February 2021 about a 3 minute read
"The costs of investment in prevention are trivial when compared with the economic and social costs of poor health"

The UK’s high death rate from COVID-19 has brought the nation’s ill health and health inequalities into stark focus and makes the need to address them more urgent than ever.

It’s a year since the All Party Parliamentary Group on Longevity (APPG) published its Health of the Nation – A Strategy for Healthier Longer Lives.

The report set out recommendations for tackling health inequalities and achieving the government’s goal of five more years of healthy life expectancy by 2035 (HLE + 5).

APPG Secretariat Director Tina Woods, who is working with Future Care Capital, says that the goal will be impacted by the pandemic – but it’s not yet clear how.

COVID will skew average life expectancy

“We have had over 100,000 deaths, so that will reduce average life expectancy right now. But you could argue that some of those who are left are healthier as they are survivors and that might affect healthy life expectancy moving forward.

“But what is happening is that the poorest in society will continue to be disadvantaged and be disproportionately affected by COVID.

“I fear the gap between richest and poorest will be made worse as a result of COVID, and the data will eventually bear out the truth.”

In December Ms Woods co-authored an article in the Lancet which highlighted how COVID-19 had exposed the lack of action on prevention and population health improvement over many years.

Preventative health “forgotten”

It said that for too long preventive health had been the “forgotten part” of our health-care system. System change is urgently needed.

And the article added: “The costs of investment are trivial when compared with the economic and social costs of poor health. COVID-19 is a chance for a new national health mission. We must take it”.

The authors called on the government to act on the recommendations set out by the APPG in its report a year ago.

These were aimed at ensuring the goal of HLE + 5 was met while at the same time closing the UK’s large gap in healthy life expectancy.

Ms Woods is also a founder and acting chief executive of Business for Health which was set up as a community interest company and launched in November 2020 as part of Longevity Week.

Business contribution to health

She said the organisation was set up to support long-term sustainable innovation and investment in preventative health and care. 

Its first project is to develop an index to measure business contributions to health and guide a risk management framework for health to encourage long term social investment guided by ESG (Environmental, social and Governance) mandates.

“Prevention and promoting healthy longevity is a fascinating field and there is so much going on currently.

Aging biomarkers

“For instance there’s some pivotal work happening in understanding the underlying biological process of ageing and how ageing biomarkers can help us assess where people are in their health trajectory.  This was a focus of the recent Science and Technology Select Committee Report on Ageing.

“AI can help us understand the patterns between the biomarkers and perhaps ultimately help us unlock the puzzle of how we age.

“It can also help with interventions to help delay or even stop the development of age-related diseases such as heart disease and dementia.”

An article in January’s Nature Aging discusses how recent applications of AI to aging research are leading to the emergence of the field of ‘longevity medicine’.

Ms Woods is also author of Live Longer with AI: How artificial intelligence is helping us extend our healthspan and live better too published in October 2020.