The Government has “urgent questions” to answer over whether the cuts to spending on drug treatment forced on councils by austerity has contributed to a surge in drug deaths, an expert has said.
Local government has been forced to cut spending on sexual health and drug abuse by 5% each and smoking prevention by 15% in 2017/18, compared with the previous year, because of central Government funding cuts, according to analysis by health charity The King’s Fund.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug law expertise charity Release, said a surge in drug deaths meant they now outstrip traffic deaths and questions had to be asked.
“Urgent questions must be asked about the significant cuts to drug treatment and whether they have contributed to the record numbers of drug related deaths,” she told HuffPost UK.
“In the last three years, there has been 107% increase in the number of heroin/morphine related deaths, over a thousand people died in 2015.
“We know drug treatment and harm reduction saves lives but, as well as savage cuts to services, Government has devolved funding responsibility for drug treatment to local authorities whilst promoting a recovery agenda at the expense of evidenced based responses.
“It is time for Government to take responsibility for this tragic situation and ensure proper funding is available. It must also embrace harm reduction fully in order to save lives.”
The King’s Fund analysis is based on Department of Communities and Local Government data on local government spending in 2017/18.
The Kings Fund estimates that, when the figure for that year is adjusted to make a like-for-like comparison, councils will spend £2.52 billion on public health services in the 2017/18 financial year, compared with £2.6 billion in the previous year.
The charity estimates:
spending on sexual health services will be cut by 5% - £30 million - compared with the previous year
tackling drug misuse in adults will be cut by 5.5% - by more than £22 million, a 5.5 per cent cut
stop smoking services by 15% - almost £16 million
Officially, the public health spend for 2017/18 is expected to be £3.4 billion but The King’s Fund analysis discounts inflation, as well as recent changes to the definition of public health spending.
Its like-for-like analysis shows some councils are planning to spend more on some areas, such as physical exercise, but public health spending will be 5% lower in 2017/18 than it was in 2013/2014.
Planned spending on sexual health services has fallen by £64 million - 10% - over the past four years, The King’s Fund said.
David Buck, Senior Fellow in Public Health and Inequalities at The King’s Fund, said: “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.
“Reducing spending on public health is short-sighted at the best of times. 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.”
The charity said the spending cuts came after “Government cuts in public health funding of at least £600 million by 2020/21, on top of £200 million already cut from the 2015/16 budget”.
“This is despite Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt highlighting in parliament last year that making good progress on public health often has the biggest effect on health inequalities,” the charity added.
In response to the King’s Fund report, 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 £16 billion 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.”