When one seasoned commentator saw this shocking figure, he assumed there must have been a mistake. Surely the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest people in the Lothians could not be 21 years, the numbers must have been transposed accidentally from 12. But no, male life expectancy in Greendykes and Niddrie Mains areas of Edinburgh is just 63.6 years, compared to the 85 years a man in the city’s New Town West can look forward to.
It should perhaps not have been such a surprise. In Glasgow, the situation is even worse – people with a life expectancy of 54 live a few miles from wealthy fellow Scots who should live well into their 80s.
The Conservatives described the Edinburgh figure as “staggering”, showing the “dire situation people in Scotland’s poorest communities find themselves in”, while the Liberal Democrats called for “urgent action” to address the “utterly scandalous” inequalities.
Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell sought to stress the actions the Scottish Government is taking to deal with the “underlying causes that drive health inequalities”, particularly poverty. It is good that our politicians, across the political spectrum, sound so committed to the cause of ending such disparities after NHS Lothian provided the figures that spell out the extent of the problem.
What is now needed is hard evidence that the situation is being changed for the better.
Scotland is one of the wealthiest places in the world and yet the life expectancy of men in Niddrie Mains is comparable with that of those in Congo, Sudan and Ethiopia, all much poorer countries. Life expectancy in the most deprived areas of Glasgow is only a few months higher than in Somalia.
One way to tackle poverty is to improve the economy but the Scottish Government also needs to ensure it is doing all it can to help individuals. And they should be trying to help themselves, particularly in relation to diet.
Opposition parties perform a useful function in keeping up the political pressure on ministers. The SNP fears it is more vulnerable from the left than the right, so such attacks could prove effective in forcing them to look again at their policies.
But politicians of all colours need to try to come up with ideas to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They have been over-looked for too long.