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Britain faces a severe backlog in mental health support and public health provision on account of the pandemic, Sajid Javid has warned.
The Health Secretary signalled that ballooning NHS hospital waiting lists, which have been well-documented, account for only part of the nation’s health backlog problem.
While the peak of the Covid crisis appears to have receded, its passing has revealed fractures in the NHS and many of these have deepened due to coronavirus, he said.
Speaking in Blackpool on Thursday, he pointed to disparities in Covid admissions between the most and least deprived parts of the country, and the difference in mortality rates between white people and people from black, Asian and ethnic minority groups.
Covid hospitalisations were almost three times higher, and deaths 2.4 times higher, in the poorest areas of England, Mr Javid highlighted.
People from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds make up less than 14 per cent of the UK population, but have accounted for more than a third of critical care admissions from coronavirus.
He also pointed out that around 95 per cent of white Britons over 50 have accepted the offer of two doses of the jab, while only 67 per cent of black Caribbean people have accepted the same offer.
“These are symptoms of a different disease: the disease of disparity,” he said.
He vowed that the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities would have a “relentless focus” on health inequalities as part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda.
The office will take over public health work from Public Health England, and Mr Javid said it would have “a driving mission to level up health and ensure everyone has a chance to live happy and healthy lives”.
As well as tackling obesity and smoking, it will work across Whitehall to address “wider factors that contribute to people’s health outcomes” such as housing, jobs and the environment.
Aiming to level up health
Mr Javid said: “While I said we can’t level up economically without levelling up in health, it’s equally true that we can’t tackle health disparities without tackling wider disparities too.”
He drew attention to the current NHS waiting lists. More than 5.5 million people are currently on waiting lists for treatment and tests, a figure that officials have warned could spiral to 13 million by the next election.
“But the backlog in elective care is only one part of the story,” Mr Javid cautioned. “Covid-19 has had many hidden costs.”
He addressed mental health, saying “too many people” had experienced loneliness and isolation over the pandemic, while numbers waiting for routine mental health treatment have soared.
The number of adults who have reported feeling often or always lonely is up by more than a million since the start of the pandemic to 3.7 million people.
Mr Javid said the Government had promised an extra £2.3 billion per year to transform mental health services by 2023.
He added: “I value mental health as much as physical health. I believe in the parity of esteem, because when you’re healthier you’re happier, and when you’re happier you’re healthier.
“It’s my job to ensure that virtuous circle is right at the heart of health policy.”
Young people are owed an “enormous debt of gratitude” for their forbearance during the pandemic, he said.
“A lot is said of ‘young people nowadays’. But let’s just think about it for a moment,” he said. “They’ve overwhelmingly stuck to the rules. They’ve kept their distance. They’ve stopped seeing friends. All so that lives could be saved.”