GPs should be offered more money to work in deprived areas as part of efforts to tackle the “health gap” between rich and poor, an influential group of MPs has said.
The cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) made the suggestion in a report criticising Labour for allowing inequalities to widen during its 13 years in power.
Accusing the previous government of failing to address GP shortages in key parts of the country, the MPs said: “The Department of Health (DoH) should identify, as a matter of urgency, what measures it can take to drive up the numbers of GPs in deprived areas, including using direct financial incentives to encourage GPs into areas of greatest health need.”
Tony Blair pledged to put reducing life expectancy differences at the heart of his policy after winning the general election in 1997.
One fifth of the country was identified as having deep deprivation, and local authorities were given extra money and help to improve health. A target was set to close the gap with the rest of the country by 10% between 2000 and the end of 2010.
However, a baby boy born in those areas between 2006 and 2008 is now expected to live for 75.8 years and a girl for 80.4 years, whereas the average life expectancy of the population as a whole is 77.9 for boys and 82 for girls.
That means, although life expectancy as a whole has increased, the gap has widened by 7% for boys and 14% for girls since 1995/7.
The PAC report said the DoH had tried to address a “complex and intractable problem”, but “did not set about its task with sufficient urgency or focus”.
“The Department did not deploy its own resources effectively or coherently, was too slow in making health inequalities an NHS priority, and set a performance measure that proved too blunt an instrument to target those most in need effectively,” the committee added.
The Labour chair of the PAC, Margaret Hodge, said: “A central challenge for all governments is to reduce health inequalities between the affluent and the disadvantaged.
“The problem is complex but the fact that the gap continues to widen is of great concern, especially against a background of a general improvement in public health over the last decade.
“The Department of Health has been exceptionally slow to tackle this problem. The Department knew in 1997, for instance, that certain low cost treatments, such as those to help smokers quit and those to prevent heart attacks, could have a major effect in deprived areas, but such treatments have still not been adopted on the scale required.”