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Cost of living crisis: a public health emergency

Published: 15 November 2022

Easier and faster access to mental health and well-being support, and help on energy, housing and food costs is urgently needed to protect health and save lives, according to Public Health Wales.

The new report about the cost of living crisis details how not being able to afford the essentials, such as food, rent or mortgage payments, heating and hot water, or transport, has significant and wide-ranging negative impacts on mental and physical health.  

Over the last year, there has been a 69 per cent rise in the number of people experiencing food insecurity in Wales, and a 50 per cent rise in the number of people falling behind paying a bill. 

One of the report’s recommendations is around income maximisation schemes.  For example, a recent pilot in Cwm Taf Morgannwg area saw over 1,200 young people receive advice to maximise their income and feel more confident about dealing with money.   

57 per cent reported they were less stressed or worried about their financial problems, and 70 per cent felt more confident in dealing with money worries.  More than a quarter reported they learnt to better manage their day-to-day finances. 

Sumina Azam, Consultant in Public Health at Public Health Wales, said:

“The cost of living crisis is more than a temporary economic squeeze. It is an urgent public health issue that will have negative impacts on the health and well-being of the Welsh population both now and into the future.   

“A system-wide public health response is urgently needed, both to mitigate the immediate effects of the cost of living crisis and to tackle the underlying causes of health inequalities caused by poverty to create a healthier and more equal Wales in the long-term. All public bodies, the third sector and other organisations need to work closely together to support and protect the health of the Welsh public. 

“This report provides a framework for this response.”  

Poverty is already a longstanding issue in Wales. For the last decade, almost a quarter of the population has been living in poverty. In 2020 it was 23 per cent, with nearly one in three children living in poverty (31 per cent). As Wales already has higher levels of poverty compared to the rest of the UK, its population is likely to be worse affected by the cost of living crisis. 

In July 2022, 30 per cent people in Wales were reporting that their current financial position was having a negative impact on their physical health and more than 43 per cent reported a negative effect on their mental health. As the crisis deepens it will impact all living and working conditions and affect everyone in Wales. 

Over the last year, Wales has already seen impacts of the cost of living crisis, including: 

  • 47 per cent rise in people who have borrowed money  
  • 36 per cent rise in people that can now only buy essentials 
  • 25 per cent rise in people in temporary accommodation  
  • 38 per cent rise in people sleeping rough  

These health and well-being impacts can and will extend throughout people’s lives and transfer across generations. This creates a long-term challenge for the systems and services in Wales that are needed to support them.  

Manon Roberts, Senior policy officer at Public Health Wales, said:

“A focus on health inequalities in policymaking has the potential to reap vital benefits in the longer-term as well as in the current crisis. Making progress involves thinking and planning for the long-term and translating the evidence on tackling health inequalities into practice.  

“Achieving this means rethinking the approach to decision-making in policy areas that shape the building blocks for a healthy life, such as employment, education, income, housing, environment and community factors. The report also makes clear that the overriding priority needs to be giving every child the best start in life, ensuring their needs and rights are met, recognising that disadvantage can start before birth and accumulate over the life-course.” 

 ‘Cost of living crisis in Wales; A public health lens’ identifies actions for policy makers and decision-makers to protect and promote the health and well-being of people in Wales in their response to the cost of living crisis.