THE coronavirus pandemic has wiped out ten years of progress in former coal towns like Rotherham – and taken a heavy toll on their less healthy populations.
These are the findings of a hard-hitting new report, which includes official figures indicating Rotherham’s death rate from the virus is almost twice the national average.
A study commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust noted that former industrial towns had “an older and less healthy population that was always going to mean they would be especially exposed to the worst effects of the virus”, with a tenth more people aged 65 than nationally.
As of January 4, according to government figures, 5,280 people per 100,000 people in Rotherham had tested positive for coronavirus — 30 per cent above the UK average.
The borough’s death rate for people testing positive for Covid was almost double the national rate, with 214 deaths per 100,000 people as opposed to 113.
In Yorkshire’s former coalfield areas, only Barnsley had a higher death rate (234), while neighbouring Sheffield’s was 137.
The report said: “The coronavirus pandemic has hit older industrial Britain especially hard.
“It was not obvious at the outset that this would be the case and in the first stages it was London that faced the worst of the heath crisis.
“But over 2020, as a whole, it was the cities, towns and smaller communities of older industrial Britain that on average experienced the highest rates of confirmed infection and the highest death rates.”
It said the reasons for this may emerge in time but some factors were already clear, including former coalfield areas having an older and less healthy population and high levels of deprivation.
People living in former coalfield areas were also found to have less chance to work from home, putting them at greater risk of day-to-day exposure to the virus.
Turning to the economic impact of the pandemic, the report related how areas which have recovered since their heavy industries were largely wound down — many of which were still lagging behind — had been set back disproportionately again over the past year.
Unemployment spiked by 4.2 per cent in Rotherham between February and November — a much greater rise than seen across the UK.
The borough’s youth jobless figure hit ten per cent — way above the GB average of 7.3 per cent — and by last December, the number of people aged 16 to 24 out of work was up 128 per cent on the previous year.
Even before the pandemic, the study found, average earnings in former heavy industrial areas were around eight per cent lower than nationally, unemployment a third higher and the proportion of people on incapacity benefits almost a half higher.
The 60-page report, compiled in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, concludes that the inequalities deepened by the pandemic and the reversal of the economic progress of recent years shows how vital it is for the government to follow through on pledges to “level up” deprived areas.
Prof Steve Fothergill, co-author of the report, said in less than a year, the gains in employment since the financial crisis had been “wiped out” by the pandemic.
Peter McNestry, chair of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, said: “This report provides the evidence in black and white that more needs to be done if our residents are ever to have a chance of moving forward.”