Former Labour Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has formulated a plan to save the NHS in Norfolk and Waveney £300m in the next four years. It includes patients being prescribed walking classes, eating soup in the village hall, and receiving debt advice from their GP. And these prescriptions will apparently take the place of medication.
Walking, soup socials, and debt advice may be beneficial. But should healthcare not first and foremost be about prescribing patients with vital and potentially life-saving medication? Given Hewitt’s history, such a move is perhaps not surprising.
Dismantling the NHS
When Hewitt served as Health Secretary, she outraged unions after she announced plans to partially privatise the NHS. She also had to deny that her enthusiasm for competition meant she was in favour of privatisation.
Hewitt is currently chair of the Norfolk & Waveney Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP). STPs are changing regions across the country in order to save cash following budget cuts.
In this latest move, Hewitt seems to be imposing the ideology of ‘Big Society’ on Norfolk’s NHS. Big Society was introduced by David Cameron in 2010, and it encourages more volunteering. Which sounds great at face value. But as Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis said at the time:
Make no mistake, this plan is all about saving money. The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.
Taking away patients’ medication
Hewitt wants voluntary groups to provide support for patients suffering from mental health issues. She 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.
And if someone were suffering from anxiety caused by money worries, she believes debt advice is a good replacement for medication. But if someone is suffering from crippling anxiety, does Hewitt really believe that debt advice is sufficient? After all, as a survey found:
44% of those seeking debt help have been prescribed medication to help them cope.
Hewitt would also not say whether she would be able to provide more mental health beds in the region. 139 mental health beds (25% in total) have been lost in Norfolk and Suffolk since 2012.
It seems that Hewitt is intent on removing even more support from mental health patients. But while she may be able to save some cash, the human cost could be heavy.
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