February 24, 2024

From stress about homelessness to illnesses caused by food poverty and cold homes, this financial chaos will take a heavy toll
The British economy has spiralled into chaos: the UK government’s £45bn package of tax cuts has resulted in the pound sinking, interest rates rising, and the Bank of England intervening in an extraordinary way to avert economic collapse. The International Monetary Fund, which usually steps in to ensure stability in middle- and low-income countries, made a rare and critical statement on the danger of the government plan.
Economic policies that increase inequality and make the bulk of the population poorer have grave consequences for health and wellbeing. This is true not just for the lowest earners, but for most of the population including middle-class families. Currently, rising interest rates have increased mortgages while real wages are falling. This will lead to more expensive and increasingly unaffordable housing. The costs of expensive mortgages are passed on to both homeowners and renters, in the form of higher mortgage payments and higher rents. Shelter has highlighted that almost 2.5 million people are behind or constantly struggling to pay their rent – an increase of 45% since April 2022.
The constant threat of being homeless, and the stress associated with this, is debilitating. This is the toll of not knowing if you’ll have a roof over your head next month, or food on the table next week. This is the stress of knowing that even working 50 hours a week won’t bring in enough money to cover the bills. Such financial precarity is linked to heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression and reduced life expectancy. Significant financial stress is associated with 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack. Financial stress eats at your mind and body, day after day. It’s an impossible feeling to understand for those who have gone through life buffered by wealth, especially family wealth and property.
Then there is the problem of more expensive food. The UK imports more than 50% of its food; as the pound falls against other currencies, the price of food will increase even further. Fruit, vegetables, wheat, rice, pasta and protein sources will grow more expensive. Low-income households will be forced to buy the cheapest products, food that is ultra-processed and detrimental to health, while middle-class households will have an increasing share of their income taken over by weekly shopping bills. Not having enough fruit, vegetables and protein in a diet is a risk factor for conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Child hunger has also been increasing in Britain. Some parents have been unable to provide their kids with warm meals or even lunchboxes.
More expensive fuel also has dangerous consequences for people’s health. In the UK, 50% of gas is imported from international markets and 53 million people are projected to face fuel poverty by January 2023. Fuel poverty will force families to live in cold and damp homes. Many will become ill as a result. Respiratory conditions such as wheezing and pneumonia are linked to unheated homes and damp conditions contribute to asthma. As the air becomes colder indoors, the lungs struggle to function. Doctors expect to see a rise in hospital admissions for breathing difficulties over the winter, and children missing school while they’re ill.
This tsunami of interrelated health issues adds to the burden on the health system: a sick society results in sick people, and those sick people show up in hospitals needing care. The NHS is already at breaking point and unable to provide the quality and volume of care needed. This will only become worse in the current economic climate.
We have already seen the consequence that the financial crisis had on people’s health in Greece. In the years after 2007, there was a significant increase in the prevalence of people in Greece reporting that their health was bad or very bad. In addition, there was a significant increase in people not seeking medical care despite feeling it was necessary. This was largely a result of long waiting times, understaffing in hospitals, and major cuts to public hospital budgets. In addition, a national suicide helpline found that 25% of callers reported financial difficulties, with suicide rising during the period of financial crisis.
The government’s mini-budget is disastrous for the health of the British public. Why would they go down this route? We can debate whether Prime Minister Liz Truss is incompetent for not anticipating the market’s reaction, cruel in not caring what this does to the wellbeing of the population, or corrupt in helping the super-rich profit from the pound’s plummet. But in the end, we’re all poorer in Britain today compared with a decade ago. The effects will be felt not just in our bank balances, but also in our most important asset: our mind and bodies.
Prof Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh

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