Plans published on Monday say that over the next five years, the government will support all local health and care systems to implement 'social prescribing connector schemes', in line with its aim to have a 'universal national offer available in GP practices'.
The move comes just months after the RCGP called for dedicated social prescribing staff to be integrated with every GP practice - citing evidence that access to social prescribing could reduce GP workload. RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said the plans to expand social prescribing were 'a great result for GPs and patients'.
NHS England describes social prescribing as 'a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer people to "services" in their community instead of offering only medicalised solutions'. These services can include walking clubs or dancing classes, or services to help people facing debt, or problems with relationships or housing.
Under the government plans, GPs will be able to refer patients to staff employed in each primary care network area who are able to guide patients to services that could support them.
The government hopes that primary care networks - GPs working together across populations of 30,000 to 50,000 patients - will extend across England by the end of the 2018/19 financial year.
Ministers have also pledged to support and expand social prescribing services - and to map and develop a national database of local social prescribing schemes and publish a best practice guide to social prescribing this year.
The government will also launch an 'online social prescribing platform' for commissioners and healthcare staff this year, establish regional steering groups and a training scheme for 'social prescribing link workers'.
A common outcomes framework for social prescribing will also be published this year to 'provide consistency for measuring the impact of social prescribing on the person, the health and care system, and local community groups receiving referrals.'
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock says in the strategy document: 'We recognise that there is no off-the-shelf blueprint for tackling loneliness.
'Loneliness and social isolation cannot be treated with medicines or referral for hospital treatment, so this strategy unveils bold new plans, including increasing access to social prescribing, which enables GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer people to activities in their community.
'It is not intended to replace the high quality medical care GPs can and do provide, but rather to offer a way to connect, involve and engage people who are socially isolated.'
Professor Stokes-Lampard said: 'Today’s announcement is a great result for GPs and for patients. GPs across the country are seeing an increase in the number of patients, across all generations, who are not "medically ill" but whose problems stem from social isolation, so it is very encouraging to see the government taking action on this.
'We look forward to more detail about how the proposals will be funded and how they will work in practice. We must ensure that we have a society-wide approach to this challenge and that responsibility for the success of the strategy does not fall disproportionately on GPs and their teams.'
Writing for GPonline earlier this year, the RCGP chair said that 'good GPs have always practised social prescribing'. She wrote: 'It’s clear that with the right resources for GPs to effectively and appropriately "socially prescribe", the process can save time and money, and have other benefits including fewer drug prescriptions being issued, fewer follow-up appointments, and patients empowered to engage more with their own healthcare.'
A survey by GPonline earlier this year found that one in four GPs regularly use social prescribing, up from one in five a year earlier.