CAMPAIGNERS poured scorn yesterday on former health secretary Patricia Hewitt’s plans to save NHS cash by prescribing walking classes, debt advice and volunteer-run soup kitchens.
Ms Hewitt has laid out plans at Norfolk and Waveney NHS Trust for GPs and health professionals to use “social prescribing” as an alternative to medication to save money, but campaigners warned that services would actually need additional funding for the plans to work.
Ms Hewitt was appointed chairwoman of the cash-strapped Norfolk trust’s Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) in July and has set out ambitious plans to make £300 million of cuts over the next four years.
She wants to expand the role of voluntary groups to take pressure off the NHS and provide alternative treatments to save money — a move which opens the door to NHS privatisation, campaigners say.
Her plans also include the introduction of a new IT system and she said that changes to cardiac, radiology and neurology services would be revealed in the next few months.
Ms Hewitt said: “We are all used to going to the doctor and have them write a prescription for medicine. But what we are less used to is the idea that the doctor or nurse or social worker might give us a prescription for a walking group, soup and sandwiches in the local village hall, an Age UK befriending service,” she said, adding that debt advice may be a better cure for someone with financial worries than anti-depressants.
But local health campaigners warned that the plans were not going to transform health services unless community health and hospitals are funded at the same time.
Kings Lynn and District Trades Council secretary and former Labour candidate Jo Rust said: “The proposals outlined by Patricia Hewitt appear to be those previously delivered by charities funded by county councils, whose funding, in the main, has long gone.
“Try telling a low-paid cleaner that they can get better by joining a walking group, or an elderly person caring for their spouse who has dementia that a trip to a village hall for soup and a sandwich is going to make them better.”
Campaigners have branded the government’s controversial STP reforms a “massive cuts programme,” with a staggering £25 billion set to be slashed from the NHS budget by 2020.
A growing number of local authorities and health professionals have refused to sign up to their local plans, with A&E departments and maternity units across the country set to close due to the funding crisis.
Fears have also been raised over plans “to encourage retired health professionals to stay on and volunteer.”
Ms Hewitt’s appointment has also led to concerns as her two-year tenure as health secretary was marked by job cuts, bed closures and the expansion of the role of the private sector. She survived a vote of no confidence in 2007 by just 63 votes.
On leaving her post she was controversially appointed a special consultant for privateers Alliance Boots and also became the special adviser to private equity company Cinven, which paid £1.4 billion for Bupa’s British hospitals.
Ms Rust said: “The cuts this government are imposing are already having a detrimental impact on the health of the many. I have no faith that social prescribing will have the positive impact they’re outlining. But I remain optimistic that campaigners can influence change.”
Norfolk and Waveney STP acknowledged there was a gap between finances and the provision of services and said in a statement: “We must make efficiency savings to meet growing demand within the budgets we have.”