Government cuts are pushing England into a public health crisis, the Labour Party has claimed.
It said 85% of local authorities in the country have been forced to slice their public health services this year due to diminishing allowances from the Department of Health.
“Behind these bald figures, there are human stories of distress”
Responding to the figures, union leaders representing nurses, health visitors and midwives have slammed the cuts and expressed concern about the impact on their members. In total, £800m is being taken away from public health in the six years to 2020-21, according to Labour.
New analysis by the party into government account data for this financial year shows spending will fall on these provisions by £96.3m compared to 2017-18. The reductions mean 130 out of 152 local authorities are slimming services in 2018-19.
Substance misuse is among the hardest hit, with services being cut by 114 councils at a saving of £34m. Sexual health budgets are being squeezed by £17.6m across 95 local authorities.
Spending on obesity services is reducing by £1m, however the figures show councils are investing an extra £9m on physical activity provision.
“These cuts to health budgets will leave people sicker, and in the long run will cost the NHS much more than they save”
A total of 88 councils are slicing their spending on the NHS health check programme, designed to spot early warning signs of stroke, kidney disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and dementia in people over the age of 40, by a combined £7.1m.
The national child measurement programme is losing £4.5m, while smoking cessation budgets are falling by £3.1m.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “When drug related deaths are at their highest ever, when rates of [sexually transmitted diseases] are rising, when more children are leaving school obese than ever before and when improvements in life expectancy have slowed, then these swingeing cuts to public health budgets are short sighted, cynical and wrong.
“Local services which are there to keep people well and out of hospital are to be slashed in every part of England,” he said. “The fact is these cuts to health budgets will leave people sicker, and in the long run will cost the NHS much more than they save.
“These cuts are pushing us to a public health crisis. Ahead of the government’s 10-year plan for the NHS, ministers must reverse these cuts because no plan for the NHS can work without a properly funded plan for prevention too,” he added.
“Slashing these vital preventative services will hit the poorest hardest, and exacerbate health inequality well into the future”
Clare Livingstone, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said the budget cuts were “not logical”, raising particular concern about the changes to smoking cessation services.
She added: “Reducing smoking in pregnancy is one of the best things we can do to reduce stillbirths, and reducing stillbirths is rightly one of the key health targets for the government, so these cuts appear to fly in the face of that policy.”
Helen Donovan, professional lead for public health at the Royal College of Nursing, said public health should be at the centre of the government’s policies, not an “optional extra”.
“Everyone should have the chance to live a longer, healthier life, and keeping people out of hospital saves money long term,” she added.
“With higher levels of childhood obesity, stalling life expectancy and swingeing cuts to sexual health services, it’s clear the progress we’ve made over the last few years is being undone,” she said.
RCN warns of ‘profound public health challenges’
“Slashing these vital preventative services will hit the poorest hardest, and exacerbate health inequality well into the future,” warned Ms Donovan.
Sarah Carpenter, national officer for health at Unite the union, said budget reductions had left health visitors overworked due to rising demand from families but shrinking resources.
She added: “Unite knows of at least two authorities where staff are being asked to work above capacity and in unsafe conditions. If health visitors don’t safeguard children, who will?
“In many cases, health visitors are being prevented from exercising their clinical judgement and yet they would be accountable should anything be missed or go wrong,” she said. “Faceless management consultants in one trust are telling health visitors which cases to close which is a scandalous state of affairs.
“By taking names off a list doesn’t mean the children aren’t there – they are still in need,” she said. “This is about commissioning properly with the necessary resources, but, currently, the finance available does not address the needs of the population. Yet, the population keeps growing.”
Ms Carpenter said the case for reinvestment in health visiting was “imperative”, noting that there had been a 22% drop in workforce numbers since October 2015.
She added: “Behind these bald figures, there are human stories of distress as health visitors, stretched wafer thin, struggle to deal with cases of postnatal depression and possible domestic abuse.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “There have been significant improvements in public health since 2010, with robust government action leading to a fall in rates of smoking and drug use.
“There is always more to be done, which is exactly why we are giving £16 billion to local councils to fund public health services over the current spending period,” he said.
He added: “We’re supporting them with our world leading childhood obesity plan alongside measures to halve child obesity by 2030, and work is underway to develop a new alcohol strategy.”