Our health is determined by far more than a single virus. This week, a team of scientists in Seattle, together with thousands of contributors around the world, assembled 3.5bn pieces of data to construct what they are calling the Global Burden of Disease. The story this data tells us about Britain is alarming. On some of the most important measures of health, the four nations of the United Kingdom perform worse than our nearest neighbours. Even with coronavirus out of the picture, Britain is the sick man, woman and child of Europe.
The headline findings from the report are clear. In 2019, life expectancy at birth in the UK was 82.9 years for a woman and 79.2 years for a man (the average for both was 81.1 years). These numbers look good, especially when compared with historical figures. In 1950, for example, the average life expectancy at birth for a UK citizen was 68.9 years. The combined effects of economic growth, better education and an improved NHS have delivered an extra 12 years of life. Impressive.
That is until you start comparing the UK with other European countries. When you do this, you find we have seen smaller increases in life expectancy than the western European average – 5.3 years compared with 5.7 years. Spain and Italy, for example, both had an average life expectancy at birth of 83.1 years in 2019. In France, it was 82.9 years, Sweden 82.8 years and Germany 81.2. The western European average life expectancy was a whole one year longer than in the UK.
Another important measure is what’s known as healthy life expectancy – the years of life we spend in good health. The average healthy life expectancy for the UK in 2019 was 68.9 years, meaning that people in the UK spend an average 12.2 years living with some kind of illness. And again, when one compares the UK with other European nations, we perform poorly.
In fact, Britain has the worst healthy life expectancy of any other European country. We come bottom of the league table, alongside Monaco. We’ve seen a slower improvement in healthy life expectancy (3.6 years) than the western European average (5.8 years). And the situation for children is equally bad: the under-five mortality rate in the UK in 2019 was 4.1 deaths per 1,000 live births – one of the worst performances in western Europe, second only to Malta. Whatever metric one chooses, the UK’s health performs worse than comparable European nations.
There’s a similar pattern at play across the four nations. Scotland has the lowest life expectancy (79.1 years), followed by Northern Ireland (80.3 years), Wales (80.5 years), and England (81.4 years). What’s going on?
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