Concerns have been raised that the NHS will suffer if millions of pounds earmarked for public health initiatives are taken away from councils to help the government reduce debts.
Chancellor George Osborne yesterday announced a package of new measures intended to bring down public debt by £4.5bn. This includes £3bn savings by government departments during the current financial year.
“This is a potential disaster for the NHS”
Among the savings listed by the Treasury is £200m, which is expected to come from the Department of Health’s “non NHS” budget.
Unlike much of the money due from other departments, Mr Osborne did not provide further detail on the DH sum.
However, it is being widely reported that it is public health funding and that it will be the focus of a consultation.
The Guardian newspaper said local authorities were to lose the £200m as a result of a failure to spend an equivalent sum last year provided by the DH for public health.
Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said he was “very concerned” that public health funding might be at risk.
“This is a potential disaster for the NHS, whose future depends on the preventative approach outlined in the Fiv- Year Forward Plan that the chief executive of NHS England [Simon Stevens] has rightly called for,” he said.
“We cannot overload the NHS with the burden of treating preventable ill health without tackling the reasons why people get ill in the first place,” said Professor Ashton.
“Services such as school nursing, smoking cessation, weight management and other health advice could all be severely affected”
He added: “We need public health interventions if we are to have a fit and healthy nation both now and for future generations.”
The Royal College of Nursing said it was concerned that services led by public health specialist nurses might be at risk from the announcement.
Peter Carter, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “Services such as school nursing, smoking cessation, weight management and other health advice could all be severely affected by these proposals. Tackling issues such as childhood obesity, drugs and the use of alcohol cannot be seen as an added extra for the NHS.
“Many nurses working in public health recognise that the cost of failure in this area is high,” he said. “Preventable conditions can cause huge personal misery to people, and considerable cost to the NHS when things go wrong.”
“This lack of foresight will ultimately cost more in the long term”
He warned that “paring back” health prevention could mean “throwing away a vital chance to keep people well and preserve its own future”.
“The RCN will be studying these proposals closely and responding to this consultation,” he said. “Money which is not spent on prevention is likely to end up being spent many times over to pick up the pieces in our already overstretched health service.
Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, described the proposed budget cut as “sheer folly”.
“This comes at a time when we should be investing more in preventative services and when there is an increasing and necessary focus on this from organisations such as NHS England,” she said.
“If smoking cessations services are hit, midwives may struggle to refer on pregnant women who smoke,” she said. “This will mean we may miss chances to not only improve the health of the mother, but also we lose the chance to improve the health, including the adult health, of her developing.
She added: “This may also hit vaccination programmes, sexual health, family planning and obesity services. This lack of foresight will ultimately cost more in the long term.”