We can’t explicitly link 130,000 preventable deaths to austerity

Published: 14th Jun 2019

In brief

Claim

Austerity is to blame for 130,000 preventable deaths in the UK.

Conclusion

A think tank estimated that 130,000 deaths due to preventable risk factors wouldn’t have occurred in England if pre-2012 trends had continued between 2012 and 2017. It didn’t directly attribute this to austerity. It said that while spending reductions to public services were part of the reason for this, wider policy issues were also important.

“Austerity to blame for 130,000 ‘preventable’ UK deaths”

The Observer, 1 June 2019

“Austerity has caused the deaths of over 130,000 human beings in Britain”

Francesca Martinez, 13 June 2019

This figure is based on the findings of a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank.

It showed a declining trend in deaths linked to “preventable risk factors” between 1990 and 2012. But between 2012 and 2017, the rate of decline slowed down. Had it kept pace with the previous trend, the report estimates there would have been 130,000 fewer deaths overall since 2012.

The figures are for England, not the UK or Britain. We’ve asked the IPPR for more information on how this figure was calculated.

In any case, there’s clear uncertainty behind the figure. It’s correct that this many fewer deaths would have occurred had the previous trend continued, but there’s no way to know how much the slowing trend is due to austerity policies specifically.

Attributing the change in trend to any specific causes is a matter of judgement, and the IPPR provides its own analysis in its report.

The IPPR says that almost half of the illnesses in developed countries are linked to four main “unhealthy behaviours”: “smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, and poor diet and low levels of physical activity, which together result in obesity”.

The IPPR doesn’t directly attribute the 130,000 deaths that could have been averted to austerity, but it does say that “prevention services and public health has been severely impacted by a decade of austerity”. It also identifies spending reductions in some more specific areas, for example early years, as negatively affecting public health.

Spending reductions aren’t the only factor that the IPPR picks out though. It also argues that better policy-making could help, and makes a number of recommendations.

We asked the IPPR what lay behind this change and Harry Quilter-Pinner, IPPR Senior Research Fellow and one of the report’s authors, said: "During the 1990s and 2000s there was a continuous decline in deaths attributable to an underlying risk factor in the UK. This progress stopped in 2012. If it had been maintained over 130,000 such deaths could have been avoided in the intervening years.

“Preventable ill-health is caused by a complex mix of personal behaviours such as diet, smoking and drinking alcohol, as well as the wider social context such as poverty levels, housing and the environment.

“It is likely that changes in these factors have led to the slowdown in progress seen in recent years. Cuts to public services may well have contributed to this but the wider policy agenda will also have been a crucial factor.

“Progress on smoking in the 2000s was driven by a bold policy agenda which utilised all the available policy levers including taxation, regulation, information and services. We have not been as ambitious with obesity. That has to change if we want a healthier future.”

Previous findings have focused on austerity

We’ve previously factchecked findings that there were an additional 120,000 deaths between 2010 and 2017. This was based on the results of report by academics at University College London.

Using figures to 2014 and comparing them to the pre-2010 trends, the academics found there were 45,000 more deaths between 2010 and 2014, than would have been expected had the previous trend continued. Projecting those figures forward they estimated that between 2010 and 2017 the number of additional deaths would total 120,000.

The authors looked at a variety of reasons they thought could be behind these increases and concluded that restrictions on health spending and the number of nurses were behind them.

However, these findings need to be treated with a little caution and other academics have suggested there could be reasons other than austerity behind them. We’ve written more on this here.

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