Exclusive: DoH scraps health inequalities taskforce in cost-cutting drive

The DoH has quietly abolished a national taskforce proven to reduce health inequalities in the poorest areas in England in a bid to slash central costs, GP can reveal.

Inequalities: GP groups must pay for help provided free to PCTs (Photograph: Istock)
Inequalities: GP groups must pay for help provided free to PCTs (Photograph: Istock)

The DoH scrapped a five-year-old network of 10 national support teams (NSTs) that helped PCTs improve public health services, combat health inequalities and save NHS cash. GP commissioners will have to pay private companies thousands of pounds to continue to receive the support.

GP leaders attacked the government's decision and said it showed 'the rhetoric doesn't match the reality' of NHS financial cuts.

A recent DoH report showed PCTs and local authorities greatly valued NSTs, established by Labour in 2006. Areas visited by the teams saw reductions in teenage pregnancies, better access to GUM services and sharp rises in numbers of people seeking treatment for alcohol abuse.

The DoH created NSTs to speed up advances in public health 'when much of the frontline was evidently struggling with organisational reform', the report said.

The cut was discreetly made in March. At the time, the government faced a revolt from GPs and other healthcare workers over the Health Bill.

GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey told GP: 'This is a sign of how difficult the financial situation is getting, but also how the rhetoric doesn't match the reality.'

He said the move called into question DoH determination to tackle health inequalities and showed a lack of consultation with GP commissioners.

Professor Chris Bentley, former head of the DoH's health inequalities NST, told GP the 'unconsidered' decision was a 'straight financial cut' to slash central government costs.

His team's work, which tried to 'demystify the problem of health inequalities', would have helped GPs take over the reins from PCTs, he added. 'It was good material to enable GPs to take ownership of (public health) themselves.'

Former NST staff including Professor Bentley have set up a company that intends to sell a similar service to clinical commissioning groups.

A DoH spokeswoman said NSTs supported national public service agreement targets that had been abolished, 'with the focus now on shifting power to local level'.

Labour shadow health secretary John Healey said: 'This is a further worrying sign that David Cameron's NHS reorganisation is taking the nation's health backwards. Hard on the heels of cutting inequalities budgets for poorer areas, these additional cuts to expert advice will end up costing patients and taxpayers more in the long run.

'It's more evidence the government is turning its back on tackling inequalities. The government should focus more on real problems like alcohol abuse and sexual health and less on its wasteful bureaucratic reorganisation.'

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