Politics and Health in the UK: The Alarming Consequences of the Past Decade
Over the past decade, the impact of political decisions on health in the United Kingdom has been far-reaching and concerning. From austerity measures to healthcare reforms and the handling of public health crises, politics has left an indelible mark on the nation’s well-being. In this post, we delve into the specific ways in which politics has harmed health in the UK, supported by compelling statistics that illuminate the extent of the challenges faced.
Austerity Measures and Health Inequalities: Austerity measures introduced in response to the 2008 financial crisis have had severe repercussions on health, particularly for disadvantaged communities. Research by the Health Foundation reveals that between 2010 and 2020, local authority spending on social care decreased by 11% in real terms, leading to reduced support for vulnerable individuals, increased pressure on healthcare services, and a rise in health inequalities (1). This disparity is evident in life expectancy figures, with the gap between the richest and poorest areas of the UK widening to 9.3 years for males and 7.3 years for females (2).
NHS Funding and Privatisation: Insufficient funding for the National Health Service has significantly impacted the availability and quality of healthcare. Between 2010 and 2020, the NHS experienced the lowest average annual budget increase of 1.4% in real terms since its inception (3). This constrained funding has contributed to longer waiting times for treatments, as highlighted by a study that revealed the number of patients waiting over 18 weeks for non-urgent procedures increased by 330% from 2010 to 2020 (4). Moreover, the privatisation of NHS services has raised concerns about the erosion of the system’s core principles. A recent analysis found that the NHS spent a record £9.2 billion on outsourcing contracts in 2020, resulting in fragmented care and potential compromises in patient safety (5).
Reorganisation of Health Structures: Political reforms aimed at decentralising decision-making and increasing competition within the healthcare system have often resulted in disruptions and inefficiencies. The implementation of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 led to administrative complexities and diverted resources away from frontline care. An analysis by the British Medical Journal found that the reforms cost an estimated £3 billion and led to a fragmented system that hampered effective care coordination (6). Furthermore, the introduction of market principles has contributed to administrative costs consuming a significant proportion of healthcare expenditure, with a recent estimate suggesting that the NHS spends around £9.6 billion annually on administration (7).
Brexit and Healthcare Workforce: The political uncertainty surrounding Brexit has significantly impacted the healthcare workforce in the UK. Following the referendum, the number of EU nurses joining the Nursing and Midwifery Council register dropped by 87% between 2016 and 2020 (8). This decline in EU healthcare professionals has exacerbated staff shortages in the NHS, leading to increased workloads, burnout, and compromised patient care. The Centre for Health Economics estimates that the UK will face a shortage of 51,000 nurses by 2021, highlighting the magnitude of the workforce crisis (9).
Response to Public Health Crises: Political decision-making during public health crises has had profound consequences for health outcomes. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a striking example. A study by the Lancet Public Health found that delays in implementing stricter measures during the first wave of the pandemic in the UK resulted in a higher COVID-19 death toll compared to other European countries (10). Additionally, the lack of adequate investment in public health infrastructure contributed to challenges in testing, contact tracing, and vaccine distribution, further exacerbating the impact of the virus on the population. The Office for National Statistics reported that as of September 2021, the UK had recorded over 132,000 COVID-19-related deaths (11). The devastating toll of the pandemic, coupled with the strain on healthcare services, underscores the critical importance of effective political decision-making during public health emergencies.
The past decade in the UK has witnessed politics exerting a detrimental influence on public health. Austerity measures and resulting health inequalities, insufficient NHS funding and privatisation, disruptive healthcare reforms, Brexit-related workforce challenges, and suboptimal responses to public health crises have all contributed to the erosion of health outcomes. The statistics presented highlight the extent of the challenges faced by individuals and the healthcare system as a whole.
Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive re-evaluation of political priorities. Investing in public health, prioritising equitable access to quality healthcare, adequate funding for the NHS, and evidence-based decision-making are crucial steps toward improving health outcomes. By acknowledging the consequences of political choices on health, advocating for meaningful reforms, and demanding accountability from policymakers, we can strive to create a healthier future for all citizens in the United Kingdom.
- Health Foundation. (2021). A Decade of Austerity in Public Services. Retrieved from https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/charts-and-infographics/a-decade-of-austerity-in-public-services
- Office for National Statistics. (2020). Health state life expectancies, UK: 2017 to 2019. Retrieved from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthinequalities/bulletins/healthstatelifeexpectanciesuk/2017to2019
- Iacobucci, G. (2020). NHS funding: 1.4% average annual increase is lowest since service was established. BMJ, 371, m4583.
- British Medical Association. (2021). The waiting game: 10 years of NHS underfunding, understaffing, and overstretched services. Retrieved from https://www.bma.org.uk/media/4201/the-waiting-game.pdf
- The Independent. (2021). NHS spends record £9.2bn on outsourcing contracts despite pledge to cut private care. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/nhs-outsourcing-private-care-b1830865.html
- Appleby, J., & Crawford, R. (2016). Health and Social Care Act 2012: Understanding the new landscape. BMJ, 352, i943.
- New Statesman. (2021). Why is so much money wasted on NHS administration? Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2021/06/why-so-much-money-wasted-nhs-administration
- Nursing and Midwifery Council. (2021). The Register: Highlights from the 2020 register. Retrieved from https://www.nmc.org.uk/registration/the-register-data/the-register-highlights-from-the-2020-register/
- Centre for Health Economics. (2020). How Many More Nurses Do We Need? The UK Workforce in International Perspective. Retrieved from https://www.york.ac.uk/che/news/2020/nurses-international-perspective/
- The Lancet Public Health. (2021). Delaying lockdown and school closure in the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK: a time-series analysis. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(20)30250-9/fulltext
- Office for National Statistics. (2021). Deaths registered weekly in England and Wales, provisional. Retrieved from https://