As the country experiences growing financial pressures, countless households find themselves in a precarious position where they must choose which essentials for healthy living they can afford. RSPH recently produced a report which examined the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on the nation’s health and what can be done in response to alleviate the situation now and focus on in the future. We at RSPH recently hosted a policy breakfast seminar to discuss the report and next steps with stakeholders from across the sector.

Wages are not keeping up with inflation and the costs of heating, food and other essential items are increasing at an alarming rate. Hundreds of thousands of households have struggled financially since before the current crisis - making tough choices between heating, eating and health - and now many more have joined them since being plunged into poverty and financial insecurity.

It is indisputable that poverty leads to poor health and earlier deaths. This is unfair, unjust and will have a huge impact on the future prosperity of the UK. It also creates an enormous burden on health and social care systems, which are already creaking under the strain of years of real-term cut-backs and the impact of the pandemic.

The current crisis has highlighted the stark inequalities that exist across society. For example, the recent poll that RSPH conducted  found that across the UK, half of those adults who identify as an ethnic minority have reduced or cancelled their regular sporting or recreational activities to save costs compared to the general population average of 28%. This is against a backdrop of many councils reporting having to cut back on community services including leisure centres. Not being able to access healthy choices has an impact on people’s health and wellbeing now and in the future, reducing opportunities for people and in effect robbing children of their potential.

We cannot afford for poverty to increase, so what can we do about it?

Collective action is needed and demands a two-pronged approach. Firstly, we need to work together to lobby Governments ensuring that public health services are properly funded so that support is there for everyone. In addition, with the current Government letting public health, prevention and inequalities slip off the agenda, demanding levelling up and equity across society is more important than ever to get us back on the path of health parity for all.

Secondly, the public health workforce needs support and funding to respond, deliver and plan services fit for now and the future. Talking to RSPH members, we know that they have vast collective experience in delivering public health for their communities. We must make full use of the talent at all levels of public health and support local communities, so they see themselves as part of the workforce/contributing to community health.  This is vital if we are to tackle the crisis we are facing. The Local Government Association has a cost-of-living hub which has examples of responses to the crisis across councils, and we’re seeing them pool resources to ensure people have support during the crisis. However, we also know that those who deliver public health are crying out for support around retention, recruitment and career pathways, alongside calling for appropriate and secure funding so they can develop services which will benefit us all and tackle health inequalities.

We are at very real risk of entering a dark and prolonged period of worsening long-term ill health which will have implications for years to come. However, innovative public health solutions are out there ready to be embraced – the workforce now needs to be supported to support society get through this crisis and build back healthier and wealthier. We need a joint voice across the sector to ensure prevention and inequalities remain at the heart of public health. RSPH can and will play a role in amplifying and unifying the voice of the public health community and especially the workforce.  We aim to continue to bring people together to talk about the things what can be done, not just now but also in the future to ensure that the long-term impacts of the cost-of-living crisis aren’t felt for the next 20-30 years especially by those already suffering the most.

Authored by: RSPH Trustee Maggie Rae FRSPH, FFPH, FRCP (Hon) FRCP Edin, FRCPath (Hon), FFOM (Hon), FFSRH (Hon), and Phil Satherley, RSPH Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Read our new report "Our health: the price we will pay for the cost-of-living crisis" setting out the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis and the collective response needed, including support from the government.