By Professor Dominic Harrison, Blackburn with Darwen Council public health director

THIS summer, the Government announced its intention in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a 'Levelling Up' White Paper with the intention of creating more equal social and economic life chances between the north and south of England.

Last week the Office of National Statistics published the national life expectancy tables for the calendar year 2020.

This data gives us an insight on the impact of the pandemic on overall life expectancy at birth across each local authority in England. The data published covers only nine of the 18 months of the pandemic impacts to date, and therefore excludes the effects of the Alpha and Delta Variant waves which hit in January 2021 and in April 2021 respectively.

The data shows that during the pandemic year 2020, Blackburn with Darwen lost 0.1 years of life expectancy at birth for women and exactly one year for males.

Life expectancy at birth is expressed each year as a three-year rolling average so this is the average rate for the three years 2018-20. A ‘true single year’ rate for 2020 only would be worse - but not as statistically significant as the three year rolling average.

The inclusion of the Alpha and Delta wave impacts of 2021 will worsen the three-year rolling average significantly next year, but we will not get that data until September 2022

The relative position of Blackburn with Darwen in the national league table of all local authorities life expectancy at birth calculation remains relatively stable. The borough had the 11th lowest male life expectancy in England and 10th lowest female life expectancy in 2020. This is not much different from previous years and shows that the high Covid mortality impacts in the first half of the pandemic were broadly shared with similar local authorities who already had relatively high pre-pandemic mortality rates.

Burnley, Hyndburn Rossendale and Pendle are all similarly affected and in the worst affected 25 per cent of local authority areas in England for life expectancy at birth in 2020.

Since late summer, Blackburn with Darwen's Covid infection rates have thankfully been below the national average. It may be possible that Blackburn with Darwen sustains lower pandemic-related deaths into the last quarter of 2021 than the national average, so our Covid mortality rate could be lower than many other areas by the end of the year.

Higher rates of deaths during the pandemic year 2020 are from both Covid and non-Covid causes – and the difference in male and female impacts has been observed at a national level as well as in Pennine Lancashire. These differences in male and female life expectancy are most likely to be accounted for by the fact that, at the population level, males were more likely to be out in front-line employed work keeping society running during lockdowns, and thus more persistently exposed than females to the risk of high circulating virus rates in the community.

To create equal life chances for all UK residents, it is important now that the government’s forthcoming levelling-up plans to ‘build back better’ recognises that Pennine Lancashire has carried much more than its fair share of the UK pandemic burden in 2020.

Any new 'levelling up' investment funding for health, education, jobs, growth and communities needs to recognise the high price paid by those communities who helped others most through the pandemic by continuing to work through lockdowns in the food, transport, health, manufacturing and social care systems.