COVID-19 has further exposed the health inequalities experienced by those in 'left behind' communities, and Paul Howell writes that long-term, consistent investment in these areas is vital for both their health and the economic health of the nation.

Health matters. We have always known this, but nothing sharpens the mind quite like the second anniversary of Coronavirus hitting the UK.

Now, as the government takes the difficult decisions necessary for learning to live with the virus (as we have with other diseases that can kill unchecked and cause untold harm unless guarded against) public health measures must come to the fore. And as the government also continues focus on its vital goal of 'levelling up', interventions must be focused on where they are most needed and what can do the most good.

That is why it was so important that the All-Party Parliamentary Group for 'left behind' neighbourhoods – of which I am co-chair – recently published research into the health inequalities faced in these areas. We found severe disparities between these neighbourhoods and others, with residents of those classed as 'left behind' being 46 per cent more likely to die of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, they had considerably higher overall mortality rates with a shocking 50.8 per cent higher all-cause mortality rate for under 65s.

The likelihood that you will die younger if you live in these neighbourhoods is, of course, shocking. But it is also highly concerning that you will also likely live less healthily. Residents of these neighbourhoods have higher than national average rates of obesity, high blood pressure, asthma, and a range of other indicators of poor health.

Poor health, of course, has a wider impact on people's lives. Those in 'left behind' neighbourhoods are nearly twice as likely to be out of work due to sickness than the England average. Those who are in work are likely to work longer hours than the national average and are more likely to do so in manual occupations.

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And so understandably, there has been a knock on effect on productivity for these places. The gap in productivity between local authorities that contain left behind neighbourhoods and the rest of the country was £124.1 billion. Health inequalities account for 7 per cent of this disparity. It is a vicious cycle that this government, if it is to really level up for life, must break.

My constituency of Sedgefield sits in County Durham, which has the largest number of designated 'left behind' areas in the country. In our neighbouring constituency of Horden for example nearly 30 per cent of working age people live with a limiting long-term illness. That's significantly more than double the national average.

So, tackling health inequalities in these neighbourhoods is not simply the right thing to do to ensure the wellbeing of all our citizens, but also the right thing to do for these local and our national economies. Indeed, our report found that eradicating these in local authorities that contained 'left behind' neighbourhoods would benefit the national economy by an additional £2.5 billion.

And while that benefit would absolutely be felt across the nations and regions, much of the action needed must be taken at local level.

It is what we term 'social infrastructure' that is the key to unlocking healthy, happy communities. Neighbourhoods with poor connectivity, low levels of community engagement and that lack places where people can come together – to meet, socialise, exercise and support one another – are those that see these health disparities most sharply. It will be by investing not just in the physical infrastructure like roads and railways – which can of course bring much needed hope to an area – but in the spaces where we live our shared lives that the government will truly achieve levelling up.

To make levelling up a reality across the areas that have put their trust in us to change lives and prospects, investment must be long term. Yes, the need is urgent – and our constituents expect and deserve to see immediate change. But for it to make a difference to their lives and the health and prospects of their communities there will need to be consistent investment over at least a decade to build capacity long into the future.

As representatives of these communities, we as MPs have ambition for and faith in their potential, but it is potential that needs to be unlocked. Now is our opportunity to ensure people can take control and places can transform from 'left behind' to soaring ahead.

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