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A healthy economy?

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  • Economics and Finance
  • Health & wellbeing

Health inequalities are growing in the UK.

Since 2010, improvements in life expectancy have slowed down. More people are spending more of their lives in poor health.

Why? Because how healthy a population is depends on more than care services. The social, economic, and environmental conditions they live in play an important role.

Economic development, health and wellbeing are strongly linked. Gone are the days where we understand economic development purely terms of growth targets and fiscal balances. But politics has been slow to catch up.

In the UK, policymakers managing our economy and policymakers trying to improve the nation’s health have been kept completely separate. It doesn’t need to be like this. 

Our joint report with the Health Foundation and Demos Helsinki is about how healthy citizens are more economically productive, and in turn an inclusive economy improves our wellbeing. For example, improving local infrastructure can improve community wellbeing – improving cycling and public transport options leads to more exercise and access to more job opportunities.

How can we make this a reality? To see the connection between the economy and wellbeing in action, we can look to New Zealand and Scandinavia.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has won a lot of plaudits recently for this approach, but it has been developed over many years. Wellbeing has been a part of economic policymaking for a decade. In 2019, the government announced a dedicated budget for mental health, child poverty, and other social health issues.

In Sweden, the connection has been around even longer. Since the 1970s, ‘job security councils’ have been successful in preventing long-term unemployment. They provide people made redundant with tailored re-employment coaching, training, and counselling to cope with the loss. All of this is part-funded by the company making the redundancies. Over 85% of displaced workers find a new job within the year.

Positive steps have been made locally in the UK (Scotland’s inclusive growth agenda, Leeds’ investment in local health tech), but there’s a lack of a joined-up national strategy.

Putting wellbeing first after Covid

Covid-19 has shown us how health is shaped by our circumstance. The impact of the virus has been uneven on different communities. How can we take this understanding into a post-Covid world?

Here, the how of change is as important as what the change is. As we have explored in the RSA Future Change Framework, this involves thinking through how we have responded to Covid:

  • What have we done that was temporary and we should stop?
  • What innovations are showing promise that we can amplify?
  • What have we paused that needs to be re-started? How can we do this in a new way?
  • What did we stop doing that we can now see was obsolete?

This last point can be the hardest. Having the confidence to let go of old ways of doing things is as important as new innovations. The crisis has presented an opportunity to think differently.

Rather than chasing growth for the sake of growth, all governments should be thinking about how to improve our wellbeing. This goal, informed by local knowledge, could be just the shift that we need. Let’s make it happen.

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