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Seaside poor health overlooked, warns Whitty

image copyrightCeri Oakes

A national strategy is needed to tackle poor health and lower life expectancy in seaside towns, a report from England’s chief medical officer says.

Chris Whitty says these places might have natural beauty but suffer from high rates of serious illnesses.

Coastal towns have been “overlooked by governments” and had their “ill-health hidden”, said Prof Whitty.

The report calls for cross-government action to address overlapping issues such as bad housing and poor health.

Coastal towns need their own dedicated health improvement policy, says the report, because the challenges facing towns such as Blackpool, Skegness and Hastings have more in common with each other than their inland neighbouring towns.

image copyrightCeri Oakes

Seaside and coastal towns often have older populations with more complex health needs – but at the same time local NHS services can suffer from recruitment problems, leaving gaps in health services where they are needed most.

Blackpool: Most deprived local authority in England, lowest life expectancy for both males and females; highest rates of hospital admissions for alcohol‑related harm and drug‑related deaths Torbay: High rates of heart disease, respiratory problems and diabetes; high density of low-quality private rented accommodation and reliance on caravan parksHull: A high economic impact and loss of jobs from Covid on an already “fragile” local economy, forecast to have a long-term detrimental impact on health.

There are deep-rooted social problems interwoven with poor health in coastal areas, the report highlights – such as low-paid seasonal jobs, underachievement in education, poor transport and overcrowded “houses of multiple occupation,” which might be converted from former guest houses.

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Using the example of Blackpool, the report shows how the areas of the town with the lowest male life expectancy are the same areas with the greatest concentrations of houses of multiple occupation.

Dr Arif Rajpura, Blackpool’s director of public health, said the town’s health problems required tackling the “failed” areas of private sector housing.

Seaside accommodation is also converted to house vulnerable people from bigger cities, adding to the pressure on local health and mental health services.

“Coastal towns are forgotten about,” says Jodie Smith, who lives in Eastfield, beside the North Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough.

Recruitment problems for health staff is a “common issue” in coastal areas, says the report. In Eastfield there are no dentists at all, since the last practice closed, and Jodie describes a long list of complications and costs for families trying to get treatment.

When her six-year-old son needed a dentist, Jodie and husband Andy were first directed to take a 100-mile round trip for an appointment. That was resolved with a trip only 20 miles away, but she says the lack of such basic services is “ridiculous”.

Another friend went to accident and emergency, but ended up having to pay £180 for private treatment.

“They want people to go private. But you shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on the table and going to the dentist,” she says.

There are plans for an emergency dental service, but Jodie says people should be seeing a dentist regularly and not have to wait until a crisis.

“It’s the same story across too many of our seaside towns, with practices struggling to fill vacancies and patients unable to secure care,” says British Dental Association chairman Eddie Crouch.

Local councillor Tony Randerson says phone calls about finding a dentist have become a regular occurrence.

He says it’s “absolutely diabolical” that 6,000 people, in one of the poorest wards in North Yorkshire, should be without a local dentist.

Cllr Randerson also reports an increase in mental health problems during the pandemic, reflecting people becoming isolated and lonely.

For problems of bad diet and obesity, he blames the spread of fast food shops.

“Whenever a shop becomes vacant – there’s another fast food outlet. We’re at saturation point.”

Heart disease, strokes, mental health problems, diabetes and higher rates of smoking are all more prevalent in seaside populations, the report warns, associated in turn with higher levels of coastal deprivation.

Asthma was one of the few health problems less common on the coast – and Prof Whitty pointed to the “paradox” of ill health in seaside towns when there were so many natural advantages – such as lower pollution and better access to healthy outside spaces.

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“Coastal areas are some the most beautiful, vibrant and historic places in the country. They also have some of the worst health outcomes with low life expectancy and high rates of many major diseases,” said the chief medical officer.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new Office for Health Promotion could make a positive difference.

“Those living in coastal areas clearly face different sets of challenges to those inland but everybody, no matter where they live, should have similar opportunities in education, housing, employment and health,” he said.

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