Hundreds of thousands of people could develop chronic health conditions or mental health problems in years to come because of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have predicted.

Disregarding the immediate impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is warning that the longer-term economic fallout could have ‘persistent negative health effects’, ‘long after’ social distancing measures end.

In a new briefing, it notes recent discussions on ‘whether the adverse health effects of a recession may be greater than the increased morbidity and mortality within the pandemic itself’.

The briefing adds that, if employment were to fall by the same amount as it fell in the 12 months after the 2008 financial crisis, around 900,000 more people of working age would be predicted to suffer from a chronic health condition.

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And the number of working age people suffering from poor mental health would rise by half a million.

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But, the briefing notes, the shock to employment from the coronavirus pandemic ‘is likely to be much larger than this and so we may expect a larger rise in poor health’.

The full effect would not be felt for two years, the authors say.

Heidi Karjalainen, a research economist at the IFS and an author of the briefing, said: ‘The health impacts of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic will be felt long after the social distancing measures come to an end.

‘Many of those who are most exposed to the economic shutdown – such as low-income families, especially those with young children – are also most vulnerable to long-term effects on both physical and mental health.

‘By making sure that the groups that are most at risk are also protected from the negative effects of a downturn, the Government can help minimise the long-run detrimental health impacts that would otherwise occur.’

A separate IFS briefing suggests that older people and those from poorer backgrounds will be hardest hit by disruption to emergency and non-urgent care during the pandemic.

Cancellations of non-coronavirus treatment and operations will lead to increased waiting times that ‘could take years to unwind’.

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George Stoye, an associate director at the IFS and an author of the briefing, said the crisis will impact on the ‘quantity and quality of non-coronavirus care that can be provided’ as resources are prioritised.

He said: ‘This will cause immediate distress to those affected and knock-on effects on waiting times that could take years to unwind.

‘The hardest hit will be those most likely to otherwise use hospital care, in particular older people, and those who are the least affluent and the least healthy to begin with.’

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health and social care secretary, said ministers must outline what plans are in place to protect patients whose treatment is delayed.

He continued: ‘We must also act to reduce as much as possible the negative economic impacts of these necessary measures, which is why we are pushing the Government to do all it can to protect jobs, sustain businesses and maintain incomes.

‘If the schemes fail to work as they should, unemployment will rise even more significantly and people’s health will worsen. We cannot allow that to happen.’

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