...The UK desperately needs a health and equity-focused recovery. By cutting Universal Credit and putting people into fuel poverty, the government is further entrenching health inequities which will be felt for years to come. This cannot be the way forward; the government must support those on low incomes to ensure health, especially through winter, is prioritised...
MSc Population Health student, University College London (UK)
The Cut to Universal Credit in the UK is a Threat to the Health of the Most Deprived
Millions of households in the UK rely on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit (UC/WTC), which is due to be cut by £20 on October 6th 2021, back to pre-pandemic rates. Removing the uplift, at the height of an energy crisis, at the same time as stopping furlough, and with inflation up 3.2% since last August, is a risk to public health and is a damning reflection on the state of inequality in the UK.
Throughout the pandemic, we saw how existing health inequities left those in lower socioeconomic positions more at risk of Covid-19, as shown by the Institute of Health Equity. Areas with high levels of deprivation such as Greater Manchester had a 25% higher Covid-19 death rate than the England average from the start of the pandemic to March 2021, causing life expectancy to decrease. Those living in crowded accommodation, with frontline work such as cleaning (who were also disproportionately from ethnic minority groups), and those who could not afford to self-isolate saw higher risk of mortality. Those relying on UC doubled, and demand for food banks went up 33% in 2020-2021 since the previous year, highlighting the extent of economic insecurity, even with the £20 uplift; putting food package demand at 128% higher than it was 5 years ago.
This makes it all the more shocking that UC will be cut as energy prices rise. It is well documented that cold, damp housing has direct health effects such as increasing vulnerability to respiratory illness and circulatory disorders, and indirect exacerbation of flu, arthritis and rheumatism. 30% excess winter mortality cases in Europe are suggested to be caused by cold housing by the World Health Organisation; a figure calculated before the effects of Covid-19 on excess winter mortality.
Furthermore, the fuel price increase will hit those most vulnerable to fuel poverty the most. Research by the Resolution Foundation found that the energy price increases are also set to disproportionately hit households receiving UC: the prepayment meter cap is due to increase by £153 to £1309, and a smaller increase of £139 to £1277 for default tariffs. As 4 out of 10 households receiving UC use pre-payment meters versus 1 out of 10 households without UC, the highest costs are more likely to be seen by those most vulnerable to fuel poverty. Together with the £20 cut and the loss of the furlough scheme, this makes the possibility of exacerbating fuel poverty rates, and the consequent risks to health, even more likely.
Concerningly, there has not been a formal evaluation of the effects of the UC cut by the UK government, as explained by the Work and Pensions Minister Baroness Stedman-Scott, because the uplift was deemed temporary; leaving the government unbound by the requirement to carry out an impact assessment. This leaves us to rely on think tank estimates, such as the Legatum Institute. They estimate the UC cut will push 840,000 more people into poverty. This is not simply an economic policy reversal; this is a threat to the health and wellbeing of almost 1 million people.
The UK desperately needs a health and equity-focused recovery. By cutting UC and putting people into fuel poverty, the government is further entrenching health inequities which will be felt for years to come. This cannot be the way forward; the government must support those on low incomes to ensure health, especially through winter, is prioritised. If the government can enthusiastically budget £106bn on the HS2 rail line and maintain its construction post-pandemic, extending the uplift (at an estimated at an annual cost of £6bn) doesn’t seem too much to ask.
Covid exacerbated health inequities; let’s not let policy decisions further entrench them.
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