The soaring cost of essential food and energy has created a “second health emergency” after Covid, health chiefs have warned.
The Local Government Association (LGA) and the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) say the cost of living crisis is having significant consequences on health, particularly in deprived areas.
But increasing numbers of people who were previously “just about managing” are now also in need of support, the organisations’ annual public health report claims.
The health chiefs warn that current health inequalities could widen even further despite the “best efforts” of councils and their directors of public health, which provided support including dedicated warm hubs and access to affordable food.
The report said: “The mood of this year’s annual report is significantly different. Public health teams remain positive because this is fundamental to their work, but this is often based in hope rather than optimism.
“Cost of living pressures are the second major health-related emergency in three years. Cost of living pressures has the greatest impact on people who are least equipped to deal with financial challenges but also extends to a far larger population who would normally be able to manage without support.”
The report marks the 10th anniversary of the transfer of public health responsibilities to local authorities. It said uncertainty about the direction of public health policy and the approach to tackling health inequalities was concerning local public health directors.
But it found that councils, the NHS and the voluntary and community sector had responded to the rising cost of living by building on relationships forged during the response to the pandemic. Councils are now calling on the government to make long-term increases to local public health funding.
David Fothergill, chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “The increase in the cost of living is having a real impact on our local communities, particularly in areas with higher levels of deprivation.
“Councils have been doing what they can to help, bringing together partners from the NHS and voluntary sector to support those who need it the most. Building on the experience of the pandemic, public health is at the forefront of each local response.
“However, public health services, such as for sexual health or school nurses which are crucial in helping to relieve the pressure on our health and care system, continue to face challenging financial circumstances.
“To address this, the government should provide long-term funding increases to public health services, which do so much to improve health outcomes in our local communities.”
ADPH president and director of public health for Hertfordshire, Professor Jim McManus, said “a great deal of progress” has been made over the last 10 years as a result of the move to local government, but there is still “a long way to go”.
He said: “Directors of public health in England are able to work in much closer partnership with local government departments than before to help ensure that our communities’ health needs are put at the very heart of decision and policy-making.
“There is, however, still a long way to go and our colleagues in the NHS and voluntary and community sector are a critical part of the work we are doing in public health to help people, right from the very start of childhood, live longer, healthier lives.
“However, last week, new Public Health Grant allocations were published and yet again we find ourselves in an untenable position, without adequate funding. Sadly, these cuts are counterproductive and, despite our best efforts, will inevitably result in vital services being reduced at a time when existing health inequalities have been further exacerbated by the rising cost of living.”