MPs demand answers on 'scrapped' health inequalities paper

Reports that Coffey has dropped white paper despite Covid highlighting health disparities "deeply concerning"
Photo: PjrNews/Alamy Stock Photo

MPs have demanded to know what will come of a plan to address health disparities exposed by the Covid pandemic, following reports the health inequalities white paper has been scrapped.

Women and equalities select committee chair Caroline Nokes has written to health secretary Thérèse Coffey about the “deeply concerning” reports that emerged last month that the “much-anticipated” white paper would not go ahead.

“My committee has taken evidence on a broad range of equalities issues since we were constituted in 2020. We note a consistent theme has been inequality in access to healthcare and in health outcomes; whether it be mental health support for men and boys, black maternal health, menopause or waiting lists at gender identity clinics – healthcare is an issue which affects many groups due to their shared protected characteristic,” Nokes wrote.

She said organisations supporting women who have experienced abuse, exploitation and trauma had shared with the committee evidence of women struggling to access appropriate GP appointments – such as with a female doctor – and encountering “negative assumptions about the reasons for their health problems”. 

“We had hoped the government’s review and white paper would tackle some of these issues, and that we might engage with government as part of that process,” she said.

“Having acknowledged that Covid ‘shone a light on the unacceptable disparities in health outcomes’, it would be deeply concerning if these plans were now abandoned. We look forward to your response, and to working with you and your department on some of our active inquiries."

The white paper was initially slated for publication in spring this year. It was announced in February by then-health secretary Sajid Javid, who said it would “break the link between people’s background and their prospect for a healthy life”.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the unacceptable disparities in health outcomes that exist across the country,” he said.

An Office for National Statistics project that analysed health inequalities and ethnicity during the pandemic found black men were 4.2 times more likely to die from a Covid-related death and black women are 4.3 times more likely than white men and women. The Covid-19 Deaths by Ethnicity analysis also found people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani, Indian, and mixed ethnicities were also significantly more likely to die than those of white ethnicity.

Announcing the white paper, Javid said: “The government is committed to reducing health disparities, addressing the gap in healthy life expectancy that exists between different communities and building on the positive action set out in the levelling up white paper.”

Javid said in May that the white paper would be published “shortly”.

But a source told the Guardian in September: “It’s dead. It’s never going to appear. The white paper is being canned.”

A second source said the report was “toast” because ministers considered it to be “ideological – the white paper is an affront to this government’s view of what makes for health.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has denied that Coffey had decided not to publish the white paper. “This is inaccurate. No decisions have been taken,” a spokesperson said.

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