Johnson vows to narrow health inequalities

Alan Johnson has promised to make tackling health inequalities a priority for the NHS, as he admitted increased investment had not benefited all communities equally.

Speaking to an audience in east London, the health secretary said a man born in Manchester would on average die nine years sooner than a man in Kensington and Chelsea.

Mr Johnson promised to tackle this “depressing truth” no matter how difficult it made things politically for the government.

He said: “There can be no more chilling form of inequality than someone’s social status at birth determining the timing of their death.”

He unveiled a two-pronged approach to narrowing the health gap; by improving access to primary care and focusing on prevention as much as treatment.

Under government plans, GPs could be forced to see patients at weekends or to take on patients close to their place of work rather than home address.

The government also wants to encourage more GPs to work in under-resourced deprived areas, supported by walk-in centres. It also wants to reform primary care to allow other health professionals to treat simple conditions.

Mr Johnson also advocated a change of focus, shifting the approach from treatment to prevention.

He said: “The government simply can’t afford to be the passive observers of unhealthy lifestyles, only intervening when chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease or lung cancer are already well established.”

Heralding the next phase of the health service, Mr Johnson said: “If our mantra in the 1940s was ‘from the cradle to the grave’, then our vision for the 21st Century should perhaps be ‘from the womb to the tomb’.”

The health secretary confirmed pregnant women will from April 2009 receive a “substantial” Health in Pregnancy grant. Although intended to be spent on healthy food, Mr Johnson said women would be able to spend on other essentials for their pregnancy.

He also revealed the government plans to double spending on its alcohol strategy next year, targeting messages about reasonable drinking at the hardest to reach areas.

Mr Johnson thanked Sir Derek Wanless for yesterday’s report on the NHS, which pointed to undoubted improvements in patient care over the past five years.

However, the health secretary also showed an awareness of the concerns raised in Sir Derek’s report, which warned more must be done to tackle rising obesity and give taxpayers value for money.