Weather forecasters have predicted that this year's winter may be one of the coldest on record. While many of us are fortunate to be employed, in a warm and well- heated house, there are millions of people about to face a winter homeless on the streets, unemployed or without support due to policies implemented by the current government.
Our A&E departments will be stretched to breaking point, ill-equipped to handle the number of patients arriving with mental health and social problems. The root cause of these problems can be traced back to the summer of 2010, with the birth of the unlikely union between the Liberal Democrats and Tories.
Since its inception, the coalition has been unwavering in pursuing the policy of austerity. Initially sold to the public as a necessity for deficit reduction, it has become clear that it is part of a grander Conservative plan for a leaner, smaller form of government. Under the coalition the blueprint for Britain is perpetual austerity.
In the three short years since the general election, we have seen the dramatic effects of unrestrained austerity on Britain. The Centre for Welfare Reform in their analysis of public expenditure cuts calculated that by 2015, in England local government and housing budgets will be cut in real terms by about 41.9% (£16.2 billion). Benefits for people with disabilities and the poorest will be cut by £18 billion (a cut of around 20%) and social care will be cut by £8 billion by 2015. These are staggering statistics, which show that the government's austerity programme is disproportionately affecting the poorest in society, who are bearing around 39% of the cuts.
Physical, mental and social well-being are interlinked. Those who are poor are more likely to experience mental illness. The link between economic uncertainty and mental illness has been well documented. Unemployment, housing problems and financial uncertainty can lead to poorer physical health, alcohol misuse, and social deprivation. A rise in anxiety and depression can be linked to falling incomes, rising inequality and lack of government support.
As we enter the winter months, doctors will see a rise in patients requesting appointments, showing symptoms that medicines alone cannot cure. Many patients will simply want someone to speak to, with no one else to turn to other than their doctor. The economic consequences of the rise in mental illness and poor physical health spreads beyond GP practices, with hospital A&E departments and the criminal justice system equally impacted.
But the social consequences of austerity need to be offset. Greater expenditure is required to help those most vulnerable in our society, including the homeless and those with mental health issues. This needs to be channelled into increased support for psychiatric health services and charities working on the front-line. However, increased expenditure is anathema to a government that plans to reduce the deficit at all cost, no matter the social ramifications.
This is where Labour could step in. As the party set out its welfare and health policy leading up to 2015 it must make clear that while reducing the deficit, it will also aim to ensure that the most vulnerable remain protected. In order to move forward, the tone of the debate must change.