For a few hours on Wednesday 30 June 2021, a report released by University College London’s Institute of Health Equity hit the headlines. “‘Jaw-dropping’ fall in life expectancy in poor areas of England,” reported The Guardian; despite this government’s longstanding commitment to levelling up.
The key statistic in the UCL report was that deaths involving COVID-19 had resulted in life expectancy in the north-west region of England falling by 1.6 years for men and 1.2 years for women. This is around 25% worse than for England as a whole, where life expectancy had fallen by 1.3 years and 0.9 years, for men and women respectively.
Paraphrasing the report’s author, leading public health expert Professor Marmot, the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, which commissioned the report, said: “If the government is serious about levelling up health inequities, equity of health and wellbeing must be at the heart of government and business strategy rather than narrow economic goals.”
But that “if” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. Marmot’s report is especially sceptical of the government’s “levelling up agenda”, highlighting the need for social investment in prevention, health, and care, particularly in poorer areas, and not just a few infrastructure projects.
If you want to see how serious the government is about “levelling up”, just look at how little money it has committed to investing in the ‘Levelling Up Fund’ – and the geographical areas it has picked to benefit. The fund is only £4.6bn, or on average £37m for each local authority targeted to receive it.
It seems obvious that such a scheme should be targeted at the poorest parts of the UK, which also happen to be those worse affected by the pandemic. But instead, one of the criteria that determines if an area is to be awarded money through the Levelling Up Fund is how geographically remote it is. Geographically remote areas can be more affluent areas, and are very often precisely those areas least affected by the pandemic.