What does the Queen’s Speech mean for health inequalities?

By - Integrated Care Journal

What does the Queen’s Speech mean for health inequalities?

The highly anticipated Queen’s Speech of 11 May 2021 laid out the Government’s priorities for the year ahead. While inequality received just one line, the focus on education will be positive in addressing the social determinants of health.

“My Government will level-up across all parts of the United Kingdom, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth and addressing the impact of the pandemic. ” Beginning her speech with the Government’s favourite catchphrase ‘levelling-up’, the Queen opened the new parliamentary session by introducing around 30 laws which ministers intend to pass this year.

The social determinants of health demonstrate that health inequality has very little do with health in and of itself, and everything to do wider inequality. Social determinants include location, housing, employment education and socioeconomic status. Despite the momentous attention given to inequality during the Covid-19 pandemic, the speech gave it little consideration. However, it is the Government’s focus on education that may be most decisive for those at the bottom of Britain’s social ladder.

A Key Social Determinant: Education 

When the Covid-19 pandemic began in March of 2020, the classroom was downloaded onto Zoom and left millions of children behind in the process. In June of last year, the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) predicted that three months of school closures had reversed the attainment gap by a decade – a gap that is now predicted to have doubled. As Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s landmark report Build Back Fairer states, “Schooling is an essential component of a child’s development, an instrument for social mobility and reducing poverty and is highly protective of health. ” 

The Queen’s assurance that “Ministers will address lost learning during the pandemic and ensure every child has a high-quality education and is able to fulfil their potential” is, therefore, welcome. The pandemic has demonstrated that schooling provides much more than just an academic education. At its most basic level, it provides the only source of daily food for the UK’s two million hungry children. Indeed, the Food Foundation reports that, in May 2021, food insecurity brought on by the pandemic “continues to be at crisis levels. ” As important as lost learning is lost nutrition. Therefore, the Government’s emphasis on rectifying lost learning must not be determined simply by 2022 exam grades, but how well fed the nation’s children are.

Education is the primary tool of social mobility and, therefore, better health. The Post-16 Education Bill is a welcome addition to the Government’s agenda. Ensuring “a lifetime skills guarantee” to enable access to good education for adults should, in theory, begin to redress the balance in health inequity: enabling both upskilling and increasing employment opportunities.

However, the Government must follow this pledge with significant investment if it is to work. Ensuring both sufficient financial support but also understanding and encouragement around the cultural barriers of returning to education must be properly accounted for if this reform is to be more than a tokenism.

Investing in the NHS and pushing forward with the Health and Care Bill is a step in the right direction in terms of improving the nation’s health, but the distinct lack of awareness around wider inequality is concerning. It remains to be seen how many of the bills introduced in this parliamentary session will serve the UK’s most vulnerable, but investing in education is a start.

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