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Annual public health funding cut of 4% branded 'short-sighted'

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Public health spending will be cut by 4% a year in real terms, as part of the government’s spending review.

Total spending on public health will fall from £3.4bn in 2015-16 to £3.1bn in 2020-21.

Keeping the budget in line with inflation would have seen spending rise to around £3.8bn over this period, so this equates to real terms cuts of about £138m per year on average.

Total public health spending was planned to be £3.6bn in 2015-16, until the government announced an in-year cut of £200m.

Nicola Close, chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said many councils are still struggling to find these savings, so next year’s cut will “feel even more severe”.

“We are disappointed by the chancellor’s announcement that there will be further cuts to grants for public health services, many of which are provided by the NHS. It’s short-sighted and counter productive to cut preventative services,” she told Nursing Times’ sister title Health Service Journal.

The spending review document said: “This spending review finishes the job of reforming the public health system, delivering average annual real terms savings of 3.9% over the next five years…

“Councils can seek to deliver efficiencies in this area, and can learn from best practice. So it is right that as the government eliminates the deficit, all funding is spent in the best way possible,” it said.

“Public Health England will continue to support local authorities in this process,” it added.

Meanwhile, the government is to consult on options to fully fund councils’ public health spending from retained business rates receipts, as part of the move towards 100% business rate retention. Some public health cash is still held by PHE.

It is understood that the following public health spending has been planned:

  • 2016-17: £3.38bn
  • 2017-18: £3.3bn
  • 2018-19: £3.2bn
  • 2019-20: £3.13bn
  • 2020-21: £3.1bn

John Appleby, chief economist at the King’s Fund think-tank, said: “It is clear that a large chunk of the additional funding for the NHS has been found through substantial cuts to other Department of Health budgets.

“The full details are not yet clear but cutting the public health budget is a false economy, undermining the government’s commitments on prevention at a time when the need to improve public health is becoming increasingly urgent,” he said.

“The full details are not yet clear but cutting the public health budget is a false economy”

John Appleby

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, agreed that some of the extra money earmarked for the NHS in 2016-17 would come from current public health spending by both central and local government, including ”important preventive measures like stop smoking services and programmes to combat obesity”.

“[The] announcement by the chancellor of £3.8bn of extra funding for the health service sounded generous, but it is now clear this may have come at the cost of services that the NHS depends on,” he said.

However, the government said it would invest over £400m over an eight year period in a new “science hub”, which will provide “world class” laboratories for Public Health England.

The labs will be based at Harlow, Essex and help protect the public from threats such as flu and ebola, said the spending review document. It will see existing facilities relocated from Porton Down near Salisbury and Colindale in north London into one integrated site.

According to Public Health England, the new hub is expected to be fully operational by 2024 with the first facilities opening in 2019.

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