The north-south divide is a powerful trope within popular English culture and it’s also evident within the country’s health. A recent report by Public Health England showed that between 2009 and 2011, people in Manchester were more than twice as likely to die early (455 deaths per 100,000) compared to people living in Wokingham (200 deaths per 100,000).
This sort of finding isn’t new; for the past four decades, the north of England has persistently had higher death rates than the south, and the gap has widened over time. People in the north are also consistently found to be less healthy than those in the south across all social classes and among men and women. For example, average male life expectancy in 2008-10 in the north-west was 77 years, compared to 80 in the south-east.
A large amount of this geographical health divide can be explained by social and economic differences with the north being poorer than the south. Certainly, over the past 20 years the north has consistently had lower employment rates (for example this is 70% in the north-east compared to 80% in the south-east).
This is of course associated with the lasting effects of de-industrialisation (with the closure of large scale industry such as mining, ship building and steel) and the lack of any replacement jobs or a strong regional economic policy.
While the NHS clearly cannot address all the issues that cause the north-south divide, there have been attempts to increase NHS funding in areas that have the worst health – and many of these are in the north. The current NHS funding formula considers factors such as deprivation and ill-health indicators by area, so places with worse health and higher deprivation have higher NHS budgets.
However, NHS England has a new funding formula out for consultation which fundamentally changes the way money is allocated to General Practitioners for the care of patients, and it appears that the north will lose out.
In our BMJ letter, we mapped the new NHS funding data and this showed clearly that the more affluent and healthier south-east will benefit at the expense of the poorer and less healthy north. For example, in areas like south-eastern Hampshire, where average life expectancy is 81 years for men and 84 years for women, and healthy life expectancy is 67 years for men and 68 years for women, NHS funding will increase by £164 per person (+14%).
This is at the expense of places such as Sunderland, where average life expectancy is 77 years for men and 81 years for women and healthy life expectancy is 57 years for men and 58 years for women, and where NHS funding will decrease by £146 per person (-11%). More deprived parts of London will also lose out with Camden receiving £273 less per head (-27%) under the proposed formula.
While the objective of the new formula is to provide “equal opportunity of access for equal need”, these geographical shifts are because it has defined “need” largely in terms of age and gender, with a reduced focus on deprivation.
It also uses individual-level, not area-level need, GP-registered populations rather than higher wider population estimates, and secondary care (use of hospitals and A&E) not primary or community care use. This means that areas with older populations have higher health care usage so they are getting money transferred to them from areas with fewer old people.
However, areas with more old people are also areas that have healthier populations who live longer – hence there are more old people. These healthy old people are largely in the south-east so, within a fixed NHS budget, the new NHS formula can only shift money to them by taking it from others.
The new formula appears to shift NHS funds from some unhealthy to healthy areas, from north to south, from urban to rural and from young to old.
Many of the areas that will lose NHS funding if the new formula is implemented are the same areas that have also lost out from above average cuts to local authority budgets. The scale of the potential NHS funding shifts will add further stress onto these local health and social care systems and potentially widen the north-south health divide by reducing access to NHS services where they are needed most.
This piece first appeared in The Conversation.