More than 330,000 excess deaths in Great Britain in recent years can be attributed to spending cuts to public services and benefits introduced by a UK government pursuing austerity policies, according to an academic study.
The authors of the study suggest additional deaths between 2012 and 2019 – prior to the Covid pandemic – reflect an increase in people dying prematurely after experiencing reduced income, ill-health, poor nutrition and housing, and social isolation.
Previously improving mortality trends started to change for the worse after austerity policies introduced in 2010 when tens of billions of pounds began to be cut from public spending by the Tory-led coalition government, the study said.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found there were 334,327 excess deaths beyond the expected number in England, Wales and Scotland over the eight-year period.
The findings come as the current Conservative government signalled a fresh round of major public spending reductions after the financial crisis precipitated by its mini-budget, including proposals to impose a real-terms cut to benefits for millions of working-age people.
The paper, led by the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, concluded that there was a “clear and urgent need” for such policies to be reversed and new strategies to be implemented which protect the most vulnerable in society.
Prof Gerry McCartney, professor of wellbeing economy at the University of Glasgow and a co-author of the paper, said: “As the UK government debates current and future economic direction, it needs to understand, and learn from, the devastating effects that cuts to social security and vital services have had on the health of the population across the whole of the UK.”
Co-author Ruth Dundas, professor of social epidemiology at the University of Glasgow, said: “This study shows that in the UK a great many more deaths are likely to have been caused by UK government economic policy than by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The total excess deaths included 237,855 among males in England and Wales, and 12,735 among men in Scotland. There were 77,173 excess female deaths in England and Wales, and 6,564 in Scotland.
Death rates among women living in the 20% most deprived areas of England increased by 3% after a 14% decline over the previous decade. In Scotland, premature deaths in the fifth most deprived areas increased by 6% to 7% among men and women, after previous decreases of 10% to 20%.
Previous studies have linked austerity spending policies in health and social care to excess deaths in England, as well as a slowdown in life expectancy among the most deprived individuals.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Our growth plan will deliver economic growth across the UK – which is the best way to raise living standards for everyone. We’re also supporting households with rising prices through our energy price guarantee, saving the average household around £1,000 a year for the next two years, and providing at least £1,200 of additional cost of living support for 8 million of the UK’s most vulnerable households.”
The Scottish health secretary, Humza Yousaf, said: “This is a shocking finding which underlines the true human cost of austerity and reinforces the urgent need for the UK government to change course from its current budgetary proposals.”
The general secretary of the trade union Unison, Christina McAnea, said: “Austerity can never be a solution. It was a failed experiment that’s had terrible repercussions for communities across the UK and cost many lives.”