A Tory minister has been accused of “blaming the poor” for their own deaths from coronavirus after he suggested they higher mortality rates were due to the “decisions” they make about social distancing or their own health.
The remarks by hereditary peer and health minister Lord Bethell followed calls from Labour to explain why the least well off in have double the Covid-19 death rates of the richest in society.
Former cabinet minister Lord Reid pointed out Office for National Statistics figures showing that, in England, the coronavirus mortality rate in the most deprived areas was 139.6 deaths per 100,000 compared to 63.4 deaths per 100,000 population in the wealthiest areas from March to June.
Reid added that, in June alone, you were 137.5% more likely to die of Covid if you were poor than if you were rich and demanded to know what measures the government was taking to combat the inequality.
Giving a coronavirus update to the House of Lords, which unlike the Commons is still in session until it breaks up for summer this week, Bethell replied that Reid “touches on a subject that is extremely sensitive and makes me feel emotional to think about it”.
Delivering his reply via video link, he then said: “He is entirely right that those who are least advantaged in society are hardest hit by this disease, and by lots of other diseases.
“And there are behavioural reasons for that – the decisions that people make about social distancing, about their own health decisions…”
HuffPost UK understands that Bethell was at this point heckled by shadow Labour health minister Baroness Thornton, who said: “So, you’re blaming the poor, then?” Her remarks were not captured by the televised feed of the exchanges.
Unaware of the heckle, Bethell went on to say: “..and there are environmental reasons, about living conditions and the places in which they live, neither of which detract from the fact that this is a very sad and upsetting truth.”
Bethell added that the government was “extremely conscious of the challenge” and was trying to focus on getting messages to “hard-to-reach communities who may not have heard the important messages on hygiene, on social distancing and on isolation, and we have in place a programme of marketing in order to reach these communities to communicate these important messages”.
The remarks by the minister, who is part of Matt Hancock’s health team, follow rising concerns within NHS Test and Trace that vulnerable people and those with English as a second language are being disproportionately hit by outbreaks of the disease in areas like Blackburn and Leicester.
Shadow public health minister Alex Norris told HuffPost UK: “On Friday, Boris Johnson owned up to the harm caused by his Government’s slow response to Covid.
“Now ministers want to blame Covid on the most vulnerable in society. It won’t wash.”
Conservative party sources defended Bethell, saying that individual health choices were important part of public health policy but the key was to get messages to ‘hard to reach’ communities.
One ally said: “James feels passionately about tackling health inequalities and was making the important and profound point that a whole variety of factors contribute to health outcomes, including environment, living conditions and geography.
“He hates the fact that those who are the most disadvantaged in society are often the hardest hit by coronavirus and other diseases - and as he set out at length, is determined to do more to ensure we are reaching hard to reach communities with health messaging and support to try and tackle that injustice.”
“Making sure our public health messaging reaches people from all backgrounds is a vital part of our fight against coronavirus. James has been driving those efforts inside DHSC, and it’s disappointing that Labour are taking words out of context and trying to play politics with such an important issue.”