Why we cannot let Covid-19 compromise young people’s future health

Martina Kane
Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Covid-19 has laid bare the extent of health inequalities, with more than twice the number dying of the disease in the poorest communities compared to the richest.

Yet hidden underneath this stark reality, lockdown and the economic downturn could be entrenching the same social disadvantages that has caused so many excess deaths. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an immediate health crisis. But the implications for future health caused by the gaps in employment and education for young people are potentially storing up long term health implications for many.

While the government works tirelessly towards protecting the nation’s health today, the future health of young people – our nation’s greatest asset – must also remain a top priority.

Between the ages of 12 and 24, many factors shape young people’s future health, from where you live and work to the relationships you build with others. Most will aspire to move through education into employment, become independent and leave home. This period provides an important window of opportunity for young people to build the resources for a strong, healthy future, and lay strong foundations in the wider determinants of health.

Young people are grappling with the short-term detrimental impacts of the current crisis – from isolation, to anxiety, and concern over their future job prospects. The “new normal” is not easy, as lockdown and social distancing are exacting a heavier social and economic price on young people, causing them to miss out on formative experiences such as completing college or securing their first jobs.

Before the pandemic hit, we spoke to hundreds of young people through our Young People’s Future Health Inquiry and traced the importance of skills, financial and practical support, emotional support and personal connections to build the foundations for long term health. We found that many were already struggling. Now, it is safe to say the current crisis has only magnified the issues. In fact, a new report released last month from the Resolution Foundation and supported by the Health Foundation revealed that over one in three 18-24-year-olds are receiving less pay than they did at the start of 2020. As income and health are inextricably linked throughout life, if there are early signs that first steps into employment are being compromised, this is a health concern.

We’ve also seen these concerns first-hand, through conversations with young people across the country. One young person we spoke to lost her job working at a youth centre during lockdown, as it was not possible to work online. Another job that she had lined up was also cancelled, and now with little job openings in her local area, she has lost her source of income and has no way to fund any of her next steps. Others we spoke to were struggling to balance their online learning with helping with childcare of younger siblings. Many were struggling with their mental health, and one young person had to wait almost a week for a response from his doctor regarding a change in his medication.

It is critical that government takes steps to protect jobs, continue to invest in youth services and prioritise access to mental health services for young people in the future. We know that meaningful work is vital for people’s health and wellbeing, as it offers stability, security, and a regular income. Social interactions, and a feeling of community togetherness, are also key to maintaining mental wellbeing, and it is crucial that these youth services are prioritised, to ensure that young people can work towards creating positive relationships with themselves and others.

Moving forward, a whole government approach must be adopted to ensure a healthy future for young people, bringing together policies on employment, housing, and education. Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus how health, society and the economy are inextricably intertwined. If young people are supported to thrive, the UK will thrive, ultimately leading to a society with better health and wellbeing for all.

Covid-19 has caused a great deal of uncertainty, but the need to support the future health of our young people remains clear. As the country looks to recover, we call on the government to prioritise young people when it comes to policies in education, employment, mental health services and housing. We cannot let down this ‘Lockdown Generation’ by allowing Covid-19 to compromise on the building blocks that are so essential to secure a healthy future.

Martina Kane is policy lead for the Health Foundation’s Young People’s Future Health Inquiry

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