The Department of Health and Social Care has been accused of ignoring repeated warnings about stagnating life expectancy, from academics who are demanding an urgent inquiry into whether austerity policies could be driving the trend.
The academics said that in recent years there had been “one of the greatest slowdowns [in life expectancy improvements] for both sexes since the 1890s”, with rates even declining for some groups.
Given the lack of alternative reasons for the decline, they said they were were calling for an immediate investigation into a potential link between the death rates and underfunding of the NHS and social care.
They asked how ministers could justify pushing up the state pension age in the current climate, especially as the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries had taken notice of the trend and adjusted their projections.
The four senior academics said, however, their warnings were falling on deaf ears. “Concerns about life expectancy have been raised by academics at least twice in 2017, and twice the DoH’s responses have been disappointing, even attacking the researchers involved,” they have written in the article for the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
They said it was indisputable that life expectancy had stalled in England and Wales, with suspicions that prolonged austerity mattered a great deal.
Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary, saidministers had highlighted “projected continued increases in life expectancy” to justify accelerating the rise in the state pension qualifying age to 68 years.
“The evidence from several analyses is clear: increases in life expectancy have slowed markedly and at older ages may even be reversing,” Abrahams told the Guardian, warning that women were most adversely affected by the slowdown and calling for an independent inquiry. “The government must think again.”
One of the academics, Martin McKee, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said some might argue that Britain had reached a point where you would expect life expectancy to plateau but said: “We are a long way off that.”
He pointed out that Scandinavian countries and Japan were examples of places where life expectancy was well ahead of the UK. With no natural disaster to explain the phenomenon, and flu epidemics at most contributing only partly to the trend, McKee said it was imperative to look at “severe cuts in social care” and the evidence that the “NHS was struggling to cope”.
He added: “Recent developments call into question current proposals to increase the state pension age.”
Danny Dorling, a professor at the school of geography and the environment at the University of Oxford, and co-author of the report, said: “People really are not crying wolf. This is very bad, and it is worse than anywhere else in Europe. There are some European countries, especially Norway and Finland, where progress in mortality rates just carries on as normal and they continue to see life expectancy rise and rise. They are doing the best and we, in the UK, the worse when it comes to progress since 2010.”
With pensions, said Dorling, people ought to know that if the trend continued people in the UK could expect to experience among the very lowest life expectancies in Europe, with a larger proportion dying before receiving a pension or within a few years of the payments.
Dorling called the situation entirely preventable, and that ministers did not see it as a priority.
Following reports that the life expectancy gap had widened between England’s richest and poorest neighbourhoods, Labour said it was planning to make health inequality a big focus of 2018, the 70th anniversary of the NHS.
The Conservative health select committee chair, Sarah Wollaston, also admitted it was a serious issue, particularly concerning “the health inequality that is highlighted, and regional differences”.
But a health department spokesperson said the slowdown still represented an overall improvement and insisted that funding was being put into the system. He said: “Life expectancy continues to increase, and as the authors themselves point out, it is impossible to attribute changes to spending alone – but we gave the NHS top priority in the budget with an extra £2.8bn, on top of a planned £10bn a year increase by 2020/21. This is in addition to £2bn more for social care, and the £1bn we spend each year on health research.”