Tackling poverty must be a “major” public health priority, with lives depending on the action taken, MSPs have warned.
In a new report, the Scottish Parliament’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has called for the issue to be prioritised at all levels of government.
The committee heard evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis had exacerbated health inequalities in the country.
Among its recommendations, the committee has called for action on education, employment and housing to improve health outcomes.
Safe, secure and affordable housing must be available for all, MSPs state, with concerns raised over vulnerable families being excluded from free childcare provision.
If planning policy is poorly implemented, health inequalities could also be widened, the committee stated.
A majority of MSPs on the committee agreed with a recommendation with the Glasgow Centre of Population Health that, within budget constraints, the UK Government should take action to align benefits and tax credits with inflation.
They also backed a call for the reinstatement of the uplift in Universal Credit, which was introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
SNP MSP Gillian Martin, the convener of the committee, warned of the impact that the rising cost of living could have on those already experiencing health inequalities.
“The evidence is clear that health inequalities in Scotland continue to grow, while the pandemic and ongoing cost of living crisis will only exacerbate these inequalities further,” she said.
“A number of witnesses contributing to the inquiry argued that over the past decade, UK Government policies on austerity have also had a negative impact on health inequalities in Scotland.
“We are particularly concerned that the rising cost of living will have a greater negative impact on those groups already experiencing health inequalities, including those living in poverty and those with a disability.”
Martin stated that further public service reform is needed to avoid health inequalities from worsening.
She said: “Government action to date to tackle health inequalities has not been enough in the face of decades-long, major impacts on household incomes.
“We are calling for urgent action across all levels of government to reduce these stark inequalities which have real life and death consequences.
“There is currently no overarching national strategy for tackling health inequalities in Scotland.
“Meanwhile, evidence submitted to our inquiry has revealed multiple instances where the design and delivery of public services may be exacerbating inequalities rather than reducing them.
“We need to deliver further public service reform to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen.”
The convener insisted on the importance of tackling health inequalities on people’s lives.
“The reasons why we have failed to make progress in tackling health inequalities are many and varied,” she said.
“Reducing these will require bold and strategic action across all levels of government and by a range of government departments.
“Tackling health inequalities must be a major public health priority because lives literally depend on it.”