So, thank you to every one of the local heroes who are making a real difference to peoples lives. Please know you are not alone in this fight and we salute your selfless work.
Yesterday I spoke in the House of Commons on an issue vital to to our region – health inequalities.
Ten years on from the publication of his ground-breaking report, Professor Michael Marmot’s 2020 review of the state of public health in England provides a grim picture of health inequalities both between regions and across the North East.
Marmot’s report, published last week, measures the state of public health against the widely accepted principle that “good health is an indication that a society is thriving and that economic and social and cultural features of a society are working in the best interests of the population.”
The principle is straight forward; if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has also stopped improving; and where a society flourishes, so health tends to flourish.
What follows in Marmot’s report, however, is evidence that health inequalities are growing across the country, and here in the North East we’re seeing the trends heading in the wrong direction. Put simply, after a decade of austerity that has disproportionately hurt the North East, we’re not flourishing, we’re failing.
Johnson’s talk of “levelling-up” the regions by the government sounds attractive, but unless talk becomes action, his words will remain meaningless.
It is quite shocking that on this Government’s watch life expectancy has stalled for first time since the turn of the twentieth century and there is particular concern that it is, in fact, decreasing for the most deprived women.
There are also marked regional differences in life expectancy, with the North East seeing the greatest decline compared to other regions. The gap in life expectancy between the most deprived and least deprived areas in Gateshead increased between 2010 and 2018. For both men and women, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10 percent of communities in the North East and the largest increases in the least deprived 10 percent of London communities.
There has been no sign of a decrease in mortality for people under 50. In fact, mortality rates have increased for people aged 45-49. And “healthy” life expectancy is worsening, so we’re now seeing those in the most deprived communities living more of their shorter life in ill-health. Poor health not only harms individuals, families and communities, it also comes at great expensive to the public purse.
The health of a population isn’t only based on how well the NHS is funded and functions. Health is often determined by the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and access to power, money and resources. The impact of massive funding cuts to school budgets, the closure of over a thousand Sure Start centres, and cuts to Local Authorities that have seen central government funding decline by 77% over a decade, all have a negative effect on public health.
Marmot concludes that in order to reduce the gaps, policy makers must strive to give every child the best start in life and enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives. The state must intervene to provide fair employment and good work for all and ensure a healthy standard of living for all. That means prioritising healthy and sustainable homes and communities.
For a decade now, the Tories have shown no real commitment to reducing health inequalities. I agree with Marmot, that the Government must take urgent action to level up health, by addressing the housing, educational, employment, childcare and environmental issues that all factor. That can only be achieved by working with our councils and other public services; providing them with the resources and powers to intervene where necessary.
The focus should be on investing early to lift the level of health in deprived areas in the North up to the level of good health enjoyed by people living in affluent areas in London and the South. Only then can Johnson truly claim to be “levelling up” the regions.
In January I chaired a breakfast roundtable organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust, bringing together industry representatives, third-sector organisations and parliamentarians to discuss the issue of suicide in the construction industry. The meeting had a profound impact on me.
As Chair of the All-Party Group on suicide and self-harm prevention, I am familiar with the number of lives lost to suicide and the statistics that show that middle-aged men are particularly at risk. However, even I was shocked to hear that two construction workers each day die by suicide and that twice as many die by suicide as those who die falling from heights.
A huge amount of work has been done on reducing the physical risks in the construction industry. I am glad that there are now moves by some employers and charities such as Mates in Mind to put the same focus on tackling mental health issues and preventing suicide in the construction workforce.
I fed those shocking shocking statistics into the Queen’s Speech debate on the area of Health and Social Care. Last year, the number of deaths by suicide in the UK rose significantly—an increase of more than 600 on the previous year. There were 6,507 deaths by suicide in 2018. The statistics show that middle-aged men remain the highest risk group, though rates among young people, too, are rising.
Suicide is a public health issue. It is startling to know, from work done by the University of Manchester in 2018, that two thirds of people who take their own lives are not in touch with mental health services in the year before they die. We need to find a way of reaching out to these people.
We know from work by the Samaritans and others, that low incomes, job insecurity, unemployment, housing problems and benefit sanctions are some of the key factors that lead to the desperation which many people feel.
Most councils have developed suicide prevention plans, but the Government must do more to make sure that those that do not, develop them as a matter of urgency, and that those that do, put them into real action. I have to say that cuts to public health funding by the Government is making life much harder for those local authorities that are translating their plans into actions.
Some £57 million has been made available for suicide prevention, but local NHS services need to make sure that the gaps in services, which too many people can fall through, are filled in. For example, there must be a way for people who are considered “too suicidal” for talking therapies to be able to access secondary mental healthcare swiftly, and more non-clinical services need to be available, too.
We need to keep campaigning for improved mental health provision in our region, but many of us can do more to prioritise our own self-care, to make sure we are looking out for ourselves, our friends and family.
Blue Monday is known to many of us as the day in January which has been identified as one of the toughest days of the year for a lot of people. This year it landed on Monday 20 January. With many of us still strapped for cash after Christmas, the cold weather and dark mornings and evenings can impact on our well-being.
The Samaritans “Brew Monday” campaign is a positive response that encourages people to make time to get together with friends and family, pop the kettle on and have a chat over a cup of tea. It makes the simple point that we need to avoid isolation and keep talking about how we are getting on, seek support when we need It and offer it to others in their time of need.
So, I was pleased to join volunteers once again at Newcastle Central Station, to raise awareness and offer a listening ear to commuters on their way to work. And this week I hosted Parliament’s own “Brew Monday” to highlight the issues with MPs from across the House. I’m glad to say it was very well attended – let’s hope it helps get the message out.
This morning I visited the Maternity Unit at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead (QE), along with Gill Walton, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM).
I was very keen to see first-hand the excellent work done by Midwives at the QE. A recent CQC report rated the Maternity Services at the QE as “Outstanding”; with the Hospital being rated as “Good” overall.
I’ve been delighted today to have seen the tremendous work done by staff at the QE Maternity Unit. It’s made me very proud.
It is important that we now maintain this level of outstanding service. At a time when so many Maternity Units across the country are struggling, it’s essential that we don’t let that happen at the QE. All Maternity Units deserve the high level of service that we have here.