Preventing 10,000 premature deaths a year is surely an Olympian feat

Britain is basking in pleasure at the unexpected success of its athletes at the Olympic games. Suddenly the nation seems to have arrested the decades-long decline in its sporting prowess which has become the stuff of standing jokes.

Unravelling the mystery of this turnaround has not taken long: it is, in part, due to the judicious investment of a little Lottery money in sports training and facilities a few short years ago which has brought comparatively rapid rewards. Now, much to public approval, prospects for the next Olympics are beginning to look very encouraging. In the longer term, such success will inspire people to take up sport and so do its bit for improving health.

But that is not the only or even the most significant moral of this modest policy initiative. The important lesson is that wise investment now can and will have far-reaching effects even on a social malaise present for a generation - as long as politicians and policy-makers stay resolute and lose neither faith nor interest over a period more protracted than the electoral cycle or the vicissitudes of public taste and fashion.

This is a lesson all the more paramount in a week when another, much larger-scale, long-term policy initiative was in the news. Inevitably, it attracted rather fewer headlines than the success of the sports initiative, but its implications are far more profound: it is the government's self-proclaimed 20-year strategy for combating poverty and reducing health inequalities.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, if the government - and presumably its successors - persist with this policy they could prevent 10,000 premature deaths a year.

Cynics who dismiss politicians as ineffectual, as always failing to bring about fundamental change, should contemplate the foundation's report, because it links government policies of the late 1970s and 1980s directly to annual death levels. The researchers found an irresistible correlation between deprivation levels - which deepened as a direct result of policy decisions - and mortality rates. When the rich became richer and the poor poorer because of government decisions, people died at an earlier age than they would otherwise have done.

By the same process reversed, any government committed even to an unambitious redistribution of wealth and the elimination of child poverty can directly reduce the sum of human misery and extend life. According to the report, 7,500 deaths of people under 65 could be avoided if wealth inequality returned to 1983 levels, 2,500 would be saved with full employment and 1,400 children's lives would be saved by eradicating child poverty.

These stark findings should shame all political parties into a consensus on the issue for the next 20 years.