NHS and UK economy are being harmed by rising poverty. Politicians need to find ways to tackle it, not make it worse – Scotsman comment

In-work poverty, exploitative zero-hours contracts and food banks have all become established facts of life for many in modern Britain.

Food banks are now part of mainstream life in the UK, whether for those who use them or the people who donate (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Food banks are now part of mainstream life in the UK, whether for those who use them or the people who donate (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

And to that list could perhaps be added another grim social phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common. According to homelessness charity Crisis, hundreds of people in Scotland are now sleeping in cars, tents or other “unconventional accommodation”.

Given money has a tendency to trickle up, not down, so too does poverty. And if growing numbers of people lack the money for even the basics of life, the economy as a whole will be diminished. Failing to address this situation will dampen economic growth and also risks dooming the UK to a long, steady decline in which vital public services, like the NHS, come under increasing pressure while funding fails to keep pace with demand.

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A new report by the British Medical Association lays out the long-term effects of a decade of austerity, cuts to public services and widening inequalities on the NHS. It found that one major reason why doctors are struggling to cope with the number of patients seeking their help was health conditions associated with poverty, poor housing, a lack of heating and skipping meals.

About half of GP appointments concerned preventable, long-term conditions, with 20 per cent of doctors’ time spent dealing with issues that were “non-medical but related to social or economic pressures”. “While doctors can treat a patient’s respiratory symptoms, too often they must send them back to the cold, fuel-poor homes that made them sick in the first place,” the report said.

It quoted a surgeon working in Scotland, who said they were “haunted” by a patient treated for sepsis and foot infections. “When taking their history, they recounted that their feet had been worsening and in agony for quite a while, but they were unable to take time off work to attend the GP, as their income was precious,” the surgeon said.

As economist John McLaren writes in The Scotsman today, the health of the population is vital to the health of the economy.

Unchecked, rising poverty is a threat not just to the poorest but to the nation. Politicians of all stripes need to recognise this and look for ways to get the country out of this downward spiral, or Victorian Britain may return.

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