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Opinion: Austerity increased preventable deaths

PUBLISHED: 11:00 25 July 2019

Hornsey and Wood Green MP Catherine West worries about the full impact of austeriry.

Hornsey and Wood Green MP Catherine West worries about the full impact of austeriry.

Chris McAndrew (Creative Commons licence CC BY 3.0)

The harsh impact of austerity is still revealing itself.

It's been nine years since the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat partners embarked on a savage programme of austerity that only deepened and lengthened Britain's emergence from the global recession.

It was bad economics and catastrophic for people's lives and our communities. Cuts to policing and youth services have seen recorded crime rise to its highest ever level, millions are desperately waiting for vital operations as NHS waiting lists soar, and schools are so starved of funds that they're relying on private donations to keep them afloat.

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The list goes on. I will never forget the lady who came to see me in tears at one of my first advice surgeries in 2015 because the Tory-Lib Dem Government's cruel bedroom tax was forcing her out of the home she'd lived in for almost 20 years. I campaigned against all these cuts and have repeatedly voted against Brexit in parliament because if we allow Brexit to devastate our economy it will make it even harder for a Labour Government to rebuild prosperity at home.

More recently my thoughts have turned to less immediate but equally harmful impacts of austerity. A sobering study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found more than 130,000 deaths in the UK since 2012 could have been prevented if improvements in public health policy hadn't stalled because of austerity. That's a staggering figure. Unhealthy lifestyles and habits often form at a young age and the report found evidence of disturbing reductions in physical activity in schools and chronic underfunding of health visitors.

It's two years since I set up the first All-Party Parliamentary Group on Swimming to promote the importance of all children learning how to swim at primary school, call for increased access to affordable swimming lessons and raise awareness of safe outdoor swimming. I've always loved swimming and since I established the group so many people have told me the positive impact swimming has had on their own mental and physical health. We are very lucky to have the fabulous Park Road Lido on our doorstep, which recently celebrated its 90th birthday. These kinds of activities encouraged and supported in childhood can keep you fit and provide a lifetime of enjoyment. Yet they're exactly the kind of activities that have become austerity's silent victims. Funding for PE in schools has been slashed, almost 700 public tennis courts have closed since 2010 and 2,488 grass pitches have been lost from schools across England. With the new PM Boris Johnson threatening to axe the sugar tax that's supposed to fund school sports that's likely to get even worse.

It's great that Haringey's Labour Council is offering £1 swims for under 16s during the summer holidays as well as loads of other fun activities for kids, but since the landmark "Swim for a Pound" scheme that should have been a proud London 2012 legacy was halted by massive government cuts, nationally the cost of swimming has shot up. Fewer than half of all British children can swim 25 metres when they leave primary school.

This might not be what we first think of when we think of the impact of austerity. But these terribly shortsighted decisions put in train by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition to neglect the health and fitness of the next generation will only led to wider pressures on our NHS and social care services. The next prime minister needs to reverse the decline, there is no time to waste.

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