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West of Scotland 'got austerity 40 years earlier than anyone else'

Published 11/10/2015

Ex-chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns is due to outline 'hidden costs of austerity' (Scottish Parliament/PA)
Ex-chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns is due to outline 'hidden costs of austerity' (Scottish Parliament/PA)

Social changes in Scotland caused a "spectacular widening in inequality" that Scotland's former top doctor likened to the impact of the UK Government's austerity programme.

Sir Harry Burns said that the "the west of Scotland got austerity 40 years before anyone else" with the loss of heavy industry, closure of the ship yards and housing changes

The result of that is "communities and jobs and earnings fell apart", he said.

Sir Harry, who was speaking at the Scottish Green Party conference in Glasgow, said: " What we've seen is social chaos that has emerged in younger people as an increased risk of death from drugs, alcohol, suicide and violence."

He claimed: " Scotland's poor health as we see it now is fundamentally a reflection of the health of the poor."

With men in the most deprived areas more likely to die than those in the richest communities, Sir Harry said: "W hat has caused this spectacular widening in inequality? It's suicide, drugs, violence, chronic liver disease and other disorders due to alcohol.

"That's what's causing inequality in death rates in those between 15 and 45 - drugs, alcohol, suicide and violence. We're not going to fix that by reducing the saturated fat content in the diet, there's something more at work here."

He said these "psychosocial causes of death" are r elatively recent in origin, telling the conference that Scotland had o ne of the lowest death rates from alcoholic liver disease in Western Europe from the 1950s through to the 1970's, and that it was lower than average for the next two decades.

Sir Harry said: "This notion of Scots as happy drunks is a myth, because in the 50s and 60s and 70s who drank? Men drank. What did they drink? They drank beer. Where did they drink it? In the pub. And when did they drink it? Typically at the end of a working week.

"What happens now. Who drinks? Everybody drinks. Where do they drink? Everywhere. When do they drink? All the time. And what do they drink? Anything they can get their hands on.

"There's been a societal change that has seen the emergence of drugs and alcohol as an important part of our society."

He said the closure of shipyards and steelyards was part of the change that led to this "socially determined ill health" .

The former chief medical officer, who is now professor of global public health at Strathclyde University, added: "Having a job in the shipyards gave you purpose and meaning in your life, then that gradually or even suddenly disappeared as the shipyards began to close, and hundreds of thousands of men found themselves without the work that defined them."

At the same time he said "the houses were changing and the communities were changing" with the demolition of many of Glasgow's tenements and the development of new towns.

"Catastrophe affected the west of Scotland. The way I like to think of it the west of Scotland got austerity 40 years before anyone else, as communities and jobs and earnings fell apart," he said.

"What we've seen is social chaos that has emerged in younger people as an increased risk of death from drugs, alcohol, suicide and violence."

Sir Harry warned: " What we have seen in the last 40 years in the west central Scotland will emerge in Greece and emerge in the countries across Europe that have been affected by this insane austerity."

Food blogger turned anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe hit out at Chancellor George Osborne over the impact of the UK Government's economic policies.

She said: " According to our Chancellor, austerity is working. It's a line we hear churned out again and again and again.

"At Tory conference last week he gloated that the hard work of the British people is paying off, but for who? Who exactly is austerity working for?

"Certainly not the 13 million people currently living in poverty up and down the UK and certainly not the one million people who relied on emergency food handouts from the Trussell Trust last year to feed themselves and their families."

She added: "Austerity has been sold so hard to us with its spoonful of sugar as George's marvellous medicine, but it's a cancer at the heart of a decent society and the only people that benefit from it are probably not in this room, probably not in the queues at the foodbanks."

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