The government is unlikely to achieve its 2003 pledge to cut health inequalities 10 per cent by 2010, health secretary Alan Johnson has admitted.
But at the launch of the report Tackling Health Inequalities, 10 Years On at the Fabian Society in London, the health secretary said that 'significant progress' had been made.
He said that the health gap between rich and poor had actually widened over the last decade but overall levels of health had risen sharply across all classes.
'The health of the poorest groups is now at the level of the health of the general population in 1997,' said Mr Johnson.
'Life expectancy has risen by three years overall for men and 2.1 years for women. The gains among the poorest are proportionally larger than other groups,' he added.
Mr Johnson sought to draw a line between Labour and the Conservatives on health policy, and claimed the Tories would reduce spending on health.
Shadow Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley was making 'a big mistake' by pledging to fund populations according to age rather than deprivation, warned Mr Johnson.
The policy would contradict the advice of the independent committee that advises on resource allocation, said the health secretary.
'A real choice is emerging between the two main political parties. We remain committed to tackling health and social inequalities. The Conservatives are choosing a different route,' he said.
Mr Johnson said this showed the 'hideous reality' of Conservatism was surfacing amid the financial gloom.
The health secretary, recently forced to deflect reports that he planned a leadership bid, also attacked the Conservative leader. David Cameron, he said, was like the Phantom of the Opera, 'playing the tunes the British public wants to hear'.
A spokesman said the Conservatives wanted to cut health inequalities and the improving health of the poor was part of a trend that began in the 1980s.
The Conservatives would 'properly fund' areas with large numbers of elderly people, but funding would retain deprivation weighting, he added.
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