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Health is about much more than healthcare: Why National Voices is supporting the Keep The Lifeline campaign

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld

Three slightly worrying things happened to me this week: my energy supplier went bust, I found the fresh fruit shelves at my local Co-op half empty, and the menu prices at my favourite takeaway skyrocketed. It all felt a bit odd and unsettling. But I am lucky enough – for now at least – to be able to leave it at that. Slightly worrying. A bit unsettling. Nothing more.

  • Health inequalities

For many other people, steeply rising prices for life’s necessities are coupled with lower wages, landlords refusing to reduce rents, or long-term illness – all of which lead to a much more serious situation and set of choices, such as whether to put the heating on, and whether to buy cheaper takeaway instead of more expensive fresh food. Suddenly, things are no longer just slightly worrying, but are so serious that they undermine people’s health.

That is why we at National Voices, the leading coalition of health and social care charities in England, have decided to join 100 organisations across the UK in urging the Government not to go ahead with the planned £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit. This is a first for us. Nowhere in the description of our work do we say that poverty and benefits are our thing. As far as we know, National Voices has never campaigned on benefits levels. But we think that now we have to. That’s why we have committed our support to the ‘Keep the lifeline’ campaign, led and coordinated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, asking to keep this crucial safety net. Let me explain why.

Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that although we are all in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. COVID-19 has impacted different groups differently – experiences of lockdown, disease outcomes, people’s ability to get online all differed depending on people’s income, employment, housing and more. This reflects a more general truth – that health itself is highly stratified: if you are sick and also live with poverty or racial discrimination, you are much more likely to have poorer health outcomes.

Pre-pandemic, we were already committed to listening more intently to the experiences of people living with ill health and disability, and to surface more of the work our members do with the communities they support. But since the start of the pandemic, we have expanded beyond our traditional focus on healthcare to a broad focus on health inequalities.

We convened our members in a webinar series exploring health inequalities, infused this across all our work, and then used those insights as a jumping off point for our conference on health inequity, How Can We Dismantle Health Inequity Together earlier this year – talking about poverty, racial discrimination, and digital exclusion.

The Government responded too. Laudably, at first, they responded positively to the concerns people and communities had about basic security. People were furloughed, jobs were maintained, benefits were increased by £20. Now, a setback is on the horizon. Independent analysis from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows the planned £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit risks plunging 500,000 people into poverty, including 200,000 children.

We will not tackle health inequality by making poor people poorer, especially as prices for life’s necessities continue to rise steeply amid COVID-19 and Brexit volatility. As a coalition working together to narrow the gap between those who have good health experiences and outcomes, and those who don’t, we feel we have to speak out.

Please join us in calling on the Government to Keep the Lifeline by doing these two things:

  • Write to your MP using this template
  • Raise awareness through your social networks, using #KeepTheLifeline

Thank you for your support.

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld

Head of Policy, National Voices