07 Jan 2020

Overcrowded housing in England may have contributed to increased deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, a report from a thinktank has found.

New research by The Health Foundation found that one in three households in England had at least one major housing problem related to overcrowding, affordability or quality going into the coronavirus crisis.

Housing conditions have affected people’s ability to shield from the virus, the report said.

It argued that overcrowding may have contributed to increased death rates in poorer areas during the pandemic, citing a study that showed the impact of within-household transmission on the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, the nature of shared housing in London has “sparked a mass exodus to other parts of the country”, also contributing to the spread of the disease, the report said.

Researchers said that one factor in the growth of shared accommodation is the government’s rule that housing benefit should only cover a room in shared housing for those under 35, compared with the previous entitlement that covered a one-bedroom flat from the age of 25.

People’s housing conditions have also impacted their ability to weather the challenges of lockdown, with this being especially heightened for those living in private rented accommodation where they feel unsafe, the report said.

The study cited research carried out by the National Housing Federation which estimated that 30,000 people lived in a home consisting of only room during the pandemic.

It added: “Home environment will have had a particularly increased impact on educational inequalities given the time children have spent learning at home rather than at school – children will have needed quiet, private space to study, as well as good internet access, which is more likely in more spacious homes.”

Research carried out by Inside Housing in May found a correlation between COVID-19 death rates and the level of overcrowding within local authorities in England.

While the report said the coronavirus crisis has “served to highlight the role housing plays in health”, it added that housing is “a critical wider determinant of health at all times”.

As a result, housing “is a policy area with potential to bring about substantial improvements to health and broader social benefit”, the report said.

It argued that many of the issues being faced in housing currently are a consequence of the shift in the housing tenure mix, which has seen England move from 31% of households in the social rented sector in 1980 to 17% in 2018/19.

This has led to the majority of those on lower incomes now being housed in the private rented sector where homes are “expensive, less secure and lower quality”, it added.

A number of measures are suggested as part of the study to mitigate housing’s impact on health, including “increasing the social share of housing stock through direct government intervention” and increasing the housing benefit rate to make housing more affordable in the short term.

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