Four in five of the government's 'spearhead areas' are not on track to meet the government's 2010 health inequalities target, the Department of Health has admitted.

Four in five of the government's 'spearhead areas' are not on track to meet the government's 2010 health inequalities target, the Department of Health has admitted.

In a letter to primary care trust chief executives, public health minister Caroline Flint revealed that health inequalities were still widening because life expectancies were rising more slowly in deprived areas than in richer parts of the country.

She warned chief executives that the 'gap continues to widen' in the spearhead areas, and said it was widening more for men than women.

The target, set in 2004, is to have reduced inequalities in health outcomes by 10 per cent as measured by infant mortality and life expectancy at birth.

Ms Flint said that if the target was to be met, the gap in health inequalities in the spearhead PCTs needed to be narrowed by 11 per cent for men and 16 per cent for women. She insisted that this 'does not mean the target is unachievable'.

However, of the 70 spearhead PCTs, only 13 (or one in five) were 'on track' to meet the target for both men and women.

Of the remainder, 28 (two in five) were due to miss the target for both men and women, 15 would only meet it for men and 14 for women.

'Current activity to support achievement of the target includes improving our understanding of the key interventions to improve life expectancy in spearhead areas,' said Ms Flint.

'Improving performance management is also important and we have made health inequalities one of the DoH's top six priorities for the NHS, and it will be a mandatory target with the local area agreements,' she added.

Peter Kelly, director of public health at Middlesbrough PCT, one of the spearheads, said his organisation was the 'least on track in the whole country' for narrowing the health inequalities for women, although the region was on track to meet the target for men.

'We need to get the message out to commissioners that this is a performance target and it has to be focused on,' he said. 'One thing that will help dramatically is the tobacco control legislation next year. Without that we would have no chance of meeting the target; with it we might just get through.'

John Middleton, public health director at Sandwell PCT, another spearhead organisation, said his job was being made harder by the fact that his organisation's Choosing Healthfunding had been slashed by£1.2m for the current financial year.

'I doubt whether the task of the prevention of ill-health is safe in the hands of the NHS,' he said.