The impact of austerity measures on health should be taken into account by the coalition government before it pursues further cuts.
Public health experts, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, say that the intellectual foundations of austerity as an economic response to crises have been debunked and that evidence of austerity's risks to health should be enough to give politicians pause.
The authors said that austerity policies can be expected to impact health in several ways, each difficult to reverse or avoid in the absence of strong social safety nets that mitigate risks to health. Lead author, Dr Aaron Reeves of the University of Oxford, said: "Recent reports indicate that austerity is likely to widen health inequalities. There can be a direct effect through cutting effective treatment programmes. Then there are the indirect effects of increasing unemployment, poverty, homelessness and other socio-economic risk factors."
The authors give three examples of these indirect effects. First, a key goal of austerity is to reduce public-sector employment. The resulting job loss can be expected to increase depression and suicide rates. "The regional pattern of job losses correlates with suicide changes", said Dr Reeves. "A 20% rise was observed in those regions most affected by austerity: the North East, the North-West, and Yorkshire and Humber."
Replacing the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments will, said the authors, likely adversely impact people with disabilities. "Imposition of a 12-month time-limit on non-means tested disability benefits will reduce payments by up to £4,212 per year for approximately 280,000 people. About 150,00 of these currently live in poverty and an estimated 50,000 adults are estimated to be at-risk of poverty due to these cuts."
Finally, cuts to the social housing budget and income support are coinciding with marked rises in homelessness. "Under the Labour government homelessness was declining. UK homelessness trends have since reversed by over 40% as the coalition government cut housing benefits by 10% for some groups and capped housing allowances."
Dr Reeves added: "There are differing views on why the government has failed to achieve its stated goals of economic recovery and debt reduction. Some say austerity was a mistake, saying that increased spending was necessary. Others feel that failure reflects too little of the austerity needed to spur market confidence and private sector investment. If the economists cannot agree what to do, then the public health community should call attention to the health consequences of the alternatives and ensure that they are taken into account by our political representatives."