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Austerity cuts are detrimental to health, warn public health experts

Government should consider impact on health before pursuing further cuts

Ingrid Torjesen

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The adverse impact of austerity measures on health should be taken into account by the coalition government before it pursues further cuts, warn public health experts writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

The authors say that the intellectual foundations of austerity as an economic response to crises have been debunked. Meanwhile there is evidence of austerity’s irreversible risks to health in the absence of strong social safety nets.

Lead author Dr Aaron Reeves of the University of Oxford, said: “Recent reports indicate that austerity is likely to widen health inequalities. There can be a direct effect through cutting effective treatment programmes. Then there are the indirect effects of increasing unemployment, poverty, homelessness and other socio-economic risk factors.”

The authors give three examples of these indirect effects in practice. First a key goal of austerity is to reduce public-sector employment, the authors explain, but the resulting job loss can be expected to increase depression and suicide rates. “The regional pattern of job losses correlates with suicide changes”, said Dr Reeves. “A 20% rise was observed in those regions most affected by austerity: the North East, the North-West, and Yorkshire and Humber.”

Secondly, replacing the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments will have an adverse impact on people with disabilities, the authors say, because imposition of a 12-month time-limit on non-means tested disability benefits will reduce payments by up to £4,212 per year for approximately 280,000 people. “About 150,00 of these currently live in poverty and an estimated 50,000 adults are estimated to be at-risk of poverty due to these cuts,” the article says

Finally, cuts to the social housing budget and income support are coinciding with marked rises in homelessness, the article adds. “Under the Labour government homelessness was declining. UK homelessness trends have since reversed by over 40% as the coalition government cut housing benefits by 10% for some groups and capped housing allowances.”

Dr Reeves said that experts are divided over why the government has failed to achieve its stated goals of economic recovery and debt reduction. “Some say austerity was a mistake, saying that increased spending was necessary. Others feel that failure reflects too little of the austerity needed to spur market confidence and private sector investment,” he said. “If the economists cannot agree what to do, then the public health community should call attention to the health consequences of the alternatives and ensure that they are taken into account by our political representatives.”

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