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Budget Fails To Invest In Child Health

Budget Fails To Invest In Child Health

Last week’s Budget included a bit more sticking plaster for the NHS. But, as NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens has repeatedly argued, the NHS is headed for certain bankruptcy without a “radical upgrade in prevention and public health”. Already 10% of the NHS budget is spent on diabetes – that’s £1.5m every hour – and that cost has doubled in a decade. Childhood obesity continues to rise, especially among the most disadvantaged families.

It’s plain that we cannot afford not to invest urgently in child health. Yet there was not a penny for it in the Budget – instead, the local authority public health budgets that could support child health programmes like Food for Life face substantial and continuing cuts everywhere.

At today’s Kings Fund Annual Conference, I’ve been asked to speak about ‘Making prevention everyone’s business’. Nowhere does this matter more than in nurseries and children’s centres.

It should have been a breakthrough moment for early years nutrition. Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) and Public Health England finally published updated nutrition guidelines and menus for early years settings, a year after they were promised.

The misnamed Childhood Obesity Plan: a plan for action also promised “a campaign to raise awareness of these guidelines among both early years practitioners and parents.” This has been quietly dropped. Most nurseries will have no idea they exist. The DfE has failed to find a single penny with which to support nursery cooks and managers with training to put the guidelines into practice, or to monitor their impact. By sticking the guidelines quietly on a website, and doing nothing more about them, they have condemned them to failure.

To make matters worse, the chronic under-funding of the new ‘free 30 hours’ of childcare means that nurseries are having to impose high charges for lunches to make up the gap or are stopping hot meals altogether. Those infants who need these healthy lunches most are from the families least able to pay, so they cannot benefit from the new menus anyhow.

Prevention pays. Every Government pays lip-service to this mantra. And every voter’s top priority is health. But the NHS is a national sickness service not a national health service. Until we start asking the Chancellor what Public Health is getting from the Budget, before we ask what the NHS is getting, the national waistline will get larger and larger, and our NHS will get hungrier and hungrier…