Health - a political football?
12 May 2015

More than once in recent weeks I've heard commentators state that we "shouldn't make health a political football".

I agree we shouldn't make a sport of it; but I totally disagree that health isn't a political issue.

Indeed the President of the British Medical Association, Prof Sir Michael Marmot, has made his own opinion clear, that physicians have a moral duty to speak out when the health and wellbeing of the nation is being put at risk by political decision-making.

This week an older patient, raised in the 1930s when there were "no hand-outs", told me that she can still remember her father losing his job and being in tears at being unable to feed his children because he had no money.

The British Medical Journal last month published a review of the growth in the number of food banks over the past five years. The Trussell Trust, an independent Christian organisation which oversees food banks across the UK, reported a growth in the number of food banks from 29 local authority areas in 2010 to 251 by 2014; last year almost one million people made use of them. In the United Kingdom, one of the richest countries on earth, we have hungry people queuing for food parcels.

Some argue that the growth in numbers is due to increased availability, that people just take advantage of the offer of free food. But what the BMJ report shows is that this is not the case. They identified that food banks follow deprivation; the more deprived the area, the greater cut-backs in local authority spending and the greater level of unemployment, the more likely there is to be a food bank. The typical person making use of them likely to be someone who is a single parent, or to have had personal benefit cuts or sanctions.

So if I, as a doctor, am not allowed to be moved by people's plight and food insecurity, let's make it a simple health issue. Poor diet, poor housing, financial worries, and unemployment are bad for your health. Health inequalities are, literally, killing people across Nottinghamshire. Health inequalities create disability and reduce life expectancy. And there's nothing fair about that.

And even if we want to take a purely financial point of view, health inequalities cost everyone. It places unmanageable demands on our health service and increases the overall benefits bill. So no-one wins, least of all the single mum depending on charity, queuing to provide food for her children because she can no longer provide for them herself.

Health inequalities are avoidable. Poverty is a policy choice. So, is health a political football? I've just been shown the red card. Final score, nil-nil.