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Councils slam Whitehall’s ‘short-term approach’ to public health cuts

Local councils have today criticised central government after it was revealed that public health services such as sexual health clinics and services reducing harm from smoking, alcohol and drugs will have to be cut by £85m this year by local authorities.

In findings released by health think-tank the King’s Fund today which analysed DCLG data, it was revealed that councils in England were planning to spend £3.4bn on public health services in 2017-18.

However, on a like-for-like basis excluding the impact of changes to how budgets are calculated over different years, councils will only spend £2.52bn on public health in 2017-18 compared to £2.60bn last year.

Once inflation is factored in, the King’s Fund experts also discovered that public health spending is more than 5% less in 2017-18 than it was four years ago, in 2013-14.

In addition, researchers also found that though spending was set to increase in some areas such as promoting physical activity and on children’s services, the majority of essential public health funding had been cut considerably.

Sexual health services have seen funding reduce by £30m from last year, amounting to a 5% reduction, whilst spending on tackling drug misuse has gone down by £22m, and stop smoking services have had a 15% cut, worth £16m.

Researchers suggest that central government cuts are to blame for the fall in spending for public health, which looks set to be reduced by at least £600m by 2020-21 on top of £200m already cut from the 2015-16 budget.

“These planned cuts in services are the result of central government funding cuts that are increasingly forcing councils to make difficult choices about which services they fund,” said David Buck, senior fellow in public health and inequalities at The King’s Fund.

“Reducing spending on public health is short-sighted at the best of times,” he added. “But at a time when the rate of syphilis is at its highest level for 70 years, to cut spending on sexual health services is the falsest of false economies and is storing up problems for the future.

“The government must reverse these cuts and ensure councils get adequate resources to fund vital public health services.”

Effect of cuts ‘devastating’ for communities

Local councils have also said that cuts to public health were a “short-term approach” that only compounded acute pressures for the NHS and other public services further down the line.

“Councils are clear – the government needs to look to prevention, not cure, for delivering long-term savings and better services,” said Cllr Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board.

“To take vital money away from the services which can be used to prevent illness and the need for treatment later down the line is counterproductive.”

Cllr Seccombe added that interventions to tackle teenage pregnancy, child obesity, physical inactivity, sexually transmitted infections and substance misuse could not be seen as an “added extra” for health budgets.

“Local authorities were eager to pick up the mantle of public health four years ago, but many will now feel that they have been handed all of the responsibility, but without the appropriate resources to do so,” she said.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of NHS Confederation, said that it was “self-defeating” to reduce public health spending while looking to transform care for patients.

“The government’s whole approach to reforming health care has been based on the promise of a radical upgrade in prevention and public health, yet all we have seen is cut after cut in this budget,” he said.

“Our members report direct cuts to frontline services, including the treatment of substance misuse, smoking cessation and sexual health. Further gaps in out-of-hospital and social care funding intensifies the pressures on health services.”

The Royal Society for Public Health’s chief executive Shirley Cramer CBE stated that the scale of cuts outlined in the survey would be “devastating” for the health of the nation.

“Short-sighted cuts to sexual health, drug misuse and stop smoking services are a false economy – saving money in the short term but costing far more over coming decades, while jeopardising precious gains we have made to cut the number of smokers and efforts to tackle our growing crisis of drug-related deaths,” she explained.

“When the NHS itself has called for a ‘radical upgrade in prevention and public health’ to save the service from collapse, it is reckless to be doing the exact opposite.

“The fallout from these cuts is already being felt in rising rates of sexually transmitted infections, and will hit our health service ever harder further down the line. Politicians have long operated on election-cycle funding, but this must change if we are to protect our NHS and the public’s health.”

Top Image: Chris Radburn PA Wire

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