Further health budget cuts could result in more dirty needles being discarded on Britain’s streets, pharmacists have warned.
The King’s Fund think tank calculated that funding for tackling drug misuse, provided by local authorities, is facing a 5.5 per cent cut of more than £22m this year. It revealed a total of £85m is set to be carved out of local authority allocations for public health.
Neal Patel of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) told The Independent the group has “a real concern about the direct impact on community pharmacies”.
“Needle exchange services for people who use needles are also funded by local authorities, and some schemes to support drug users,” he said.
“This is a population who need specific support and community pharmacies have been helping them for years. We’ve seen improvements, and what we don’t want to do is go backwards."
Mr Patel said some of the services offered by pharmacies, including sexual health services, help to stop smoking or to lose weight, were no longer being provided in some areas due to previous budget cuts.
Doctors and health authorities warned of the “devastating” impact of the new cuts on the future health and wellbeing of the nation after the King’s Fund revealed a total of £85m is set to be carved out of local authority allocations for public health.
Its latest like-for-like analysis showed that councils in England will spend £2.52bn on public health services in 2017-18 compared to £2.6bn the previous year and once inflation is factored in, will be more than 5 per cent lower in 2017-18 than it was in 2013-14.
Thorrun Govind, a pharmacist at a chemists in Bolton, said the planned cuts are “not good for the country” and would result in greater pressure on front-line NHS services as fewer diseases and harmful behaviours are prevented.
Hospital A&E departments and local GP surgeries are already struggling with unprecedented levels of demand coupled with funding shortfalls and staffing deficits, doctors say.
Ms Govind said that as well as “supporting and promoting healthy lifestyles”, pharmacies provide vital face-to-face care to people who misuse drugs.
“They have somewhere they can trust, we can help support them. They’ll come in for needles a couple of times and we’ll say: ‘Have you thought about coming in for treatment?’” she told The Independent.
“It’s concerning; where are these people going to go? How are they going to get hold of their needles? Community pharmacies won’t have the funds for all the needle exchange paraphernalia.
“Are we going to get increased numbers of dirty needles on the streets?” she asked, adding that drug users may also increasingly develop conditions associated with reusing needles, such as hepatitis and HIV.
There are around 87,000 people who regularly inject drugs in the UK, according to the NHS. Pharmacies have run needle exchange services since the late 1980s amid fears of HIV spreading among drug users.
Local authorities are responsible for commissioning public health services from community pharmacies, including emergency hormonal contraception, screening for sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, stopping smoking and needle exchanges.
Izzi Seccombe, chair of the Local Government Association's Community Wellbeing Board, said the Government “needs to look to prevention, not cure, for delivering long-term savings and better services”.
“We have long argued that reductions by central government to the public health grant in local government is a short-term approach and one that will only compound acute pressures for the NHS and other services further down the line,” she said.
”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.
“Interventions to tackle teenage pregnancy, child obesity, physical inactivity, sexually transmitted infections and substance misuse cannot 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.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We have a strong track record on public health – cancer survival and dementia diagnosis are at a record high whilst smoking rates and teen pregnancies are at an all-time low.
“Over the current spending period we will invest more than £16bn in local government public health services. Moreover, we have shown that we are willing to take tough action to protect the public's health, introducing standardised packaging of cigarettes, a soft drinks industry levy and a world-leading childhood obesity plan.”
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