Effective action on reducing health inequalities did not begin until nine years after the election of the Labour government, according to the National Audit Office.

The NAO’s study, released last week, said: “The department’s strategic direction on health inequalities was only matched by focused action at the local level from 2006-07.”

Sixty-two “spearhead” primary care trusts in England have received extra funding to tackle health inequalities since they were created in 2004.

The report said there was evidence some of the money had instead “been absorbed by funding higher hospital costs in deprived areas”.

Tackling Inequalities in Life Expectancy in Areas with the Worst Health and Deprivation said the Department of Health had made a “serious attempt to tackle health inequalities” but had taken too long over it.

The auditors also said the government would miss its target of reducing health inequalities by 10 per cent this year if present trends continue.

NAO director of health audit Karen Taylor told HSJ: “The DH felt it was a little unfair given they were one of the first to tackle it in a systematic way. But inequalities didn’t have the urgency we were given to believe when they said they would put it at the heart of everything they did.”