Bowing to pressure from NHS chief executive Simon Stevens, health experts, unions and the public, chancellor George Osborne finally caved – the Treasury announced today (November 24) that £3.8bn in extra funding will be invested in the NHS next year.
But, as always with the chancellor – who earlier this year tried justifying tax credit cuts by unveiling a bogus ‘National Living Wage’ – there’s a catch.
On the eve of Osborne’s spending review and autumn statement tomorrow (November 25), reports have emerged that the axe will fall hard on public health.
Already this year, public health, which has for the last two years been run by cash-strapped councils instead of the NHS, has been slashed by £200m.
And because certain parts of public health budgets cannot be touched – for example, national child measurement – preventative programmes aimed at helping people lose weight, stop smoking, or tackle drug and alcohol abuse will be disproportionately hard hit.
Since so many of the deadliest – and costliest – diseases can be prevented through better lifestyle choices, public health programmes are at the forefront of saving the taxpayer money.
In fact, the Faculty of Public Health has estimated that this year’s £200m public health axe will end up costing the NHS an extra £1bn.
Public health also covers food testing, which helps detect often instantly fatal but invisible diseases.
Two of the UK’s five remaining Food, Water and Environment laboratories are set to close in a bid to save £1m in response to public health budget cuts.
Technicians at these labs test food from restaurants, dairy products and other samples searching for deadly contaminants including salmonella, legionella and harmful strains of E.coli.
Unite regional officer Dorothy Fogg warned that if the two laboratories close, this would entail the potential loss of 40 skilled jobs and would pose a serious health to public safety.
“Unite does not accept the closure of the Public Health England (PHE) labs in Birmingham and Preston; and that York is the only such lab in the Midlands and north of England,” she said.
“Any delay because of these two closures in analysing results could pose a problem, in certain circumstances, to the public health of the local population.
“Three years ago there were about 19 labs all around the country,” Fogg added. “These have been reduced to five and with the proposed closure of another two it will mean lots of travel, if not the people collecting the samples then the samples themselves.”
“This is a major blow for food water and environmental hygiene and to our members across the country who have been in a destabilised state due to constant reorganisation within PHE.”
Unite national officer for local government Fiona Farmer argued that further cuts to public health must be “strongly resisted”.
“Health secretary Jeremy Hunt and communities secretary Greg Clark need to develop some backbone to stand up to George Osborne on this vital issue,” she said. “The chancellor is fixated by the austerity ideology, regardless of the serious consequences to public health.
“Any cuts to the overall health budget by stealth smack of the dodgy economics of Arthur Daley,” Farmer added. “Public health cuts are a false economy and cuts to health prevention impact heavily on NHS services.
Farmer explained that deep cuts to local government funding over the last five years have been “draconian” and added that “public health will collapse with a further axing to funding”.
“Local councils face a financial meltdown and further cuts could see funds being diverted from public health to deliver basic waste, refuse and social care services,” she said.
Indeed, a British Medical Journal investigation conducted after responsibility for public health was transferred from the NHS to local authorities, found that councils facing immense funding pressures were forced to divert public health money to support other threatened council services.
As local authority cuts bite harder – government policies over the last five years have left councils with a funding black hole of nearly £10bn – the inevitable collapse of public health could wipe out any gains made by Osborne’s £3.8bn commitment to the NHS next year.
“It does seem incredibly short sighted to cut primary care which can prevent ill health,” said Farmer. “This will mean people end up swamping already struggling secondary care yet further.”
In response to today’s announcement about the government’s extra NHS funding, chancellor George Osborne said that “we promised the British people that their priority was our priority, and we would fund our National Health Service.”
But if the funding comes at the expense of cuts that in effect rob Peter to pay Paul, Osborne’s latest budget bait and switch will leave no fooled.