The “sick man of Europe” tag began to surface in Glasgow more than half a century ago.

Then, in 2010, it was backed up by groundbreaking research which showed that Glaswegians had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying under the age of 65 that in comparable de-industrialised cities such as Liverpool and Manchester.

The dire statistic led to widespread media coverage of the so-called “Glasgow effect”.

But the academic who led that study disliked the term because it suggested there was something inherently different about the people living in Scotland’s largest city.

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Further research led by David Walsh of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) in 2016, which analysed data from 2003/07, found that damaging historical political decisions such as wider slum clearance and demolitions, which broke up communities, had a bigger impact on Glasgow’s mortality rates.

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He says an updated piece of research, examining health records up to 2018, provides further evidence that Government policy, mainly at a UK level, is continuing to hamper the city’s efforts to shake off the “sick man” tag.

However, those “unprecedented” effects on health are now being seen everywhere in the UK.

“There are some quite alarming changes in mortality rates,” said Mr Walsh “and more [research] on this will be coming out next year.

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“We are seeing sharply declining mortality rates among the most deprived stalling then sharply increasing. But we are seeing that across different parts of Scotland.”

The results of the latest study, covering the period up to 2018, showed that mortality levels in Glasgow are still about 12% higher than in Liverpool and Manchester, after adjusting for levels of deprivation. In the original analyses for 2003/07, the figure was 14%.

Among men, deaths under 65 years of age are still 25% higher in Scotland’s largest city. For females, however, the excess for these younger deaths has decreased markedly – from 24% to just 5% higher.

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However, Mr Walsh said the decrease was due to the situation worsening in English cities and therefore reducing the gap with Glasgow.

“In women of all ages there has been no improvement in mortality rates over 10 years, which is pretty staggering,”  said the academic.

“You would expect to see these things come down over time because of improved living conditions. But we are just not seeing it. But that is also the case in the other English cities.

“The overall excess is still there but there has been a narrowing because things in Liverpool are worse.

“It goes without saying that in an extremely wealthy society such as the UK, mortality rates should not be increasing anywhere. 

“They should be going down, as they were prior to the introduction of austerity policies.”

He said that the new data showed a slight narrowing of the gap in deaths from alcohol and suicide in Glasgow but this was the not the case for drugs.

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Will Glasgow ever close the gap completely?

“That takes us back to the discussions about political remedies,” said Mr Walsh. 

“The situation we have here isn’t inevitable. 

“What we are seeing, not just in Scotland but across the UK, shouldn’t be happening in terms of a slowing down in improvements and increase in death rates.

“If there is political will to improve the life circumstances of people, then certainly these trends can improve.

“The problem we have at the moment is that the cuts made by the UK Government are having a calamitous effect on populations and that’s what we are seeing now. 

“The causes of this are entirely political so the solutions have to be political.”
GCPH is involved in new research with Public Health Scotland, which is due to be published early next year, which Mr Walsh said would summarise the effects of Government measures on population health.

“A large number of them are UK Government because it has been the UK Government that has implemented austerity and cut social security. The obvious response is to reverse those cuts to protect income and therefore health,” he said.

“But at the same time, the devolved administrations should do what they can. In fairness to the Scottish Government, they have introduced a new low-income social security benefit for people in Scotland.

“They are doing things around the child poverty target, when they were abandoned by the UK Government.”