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Government cuts to public health budgets could hurt Covid-ravaged areas, Labour says

Jon Ashworth, Shadow secretary of state for health, delivers his speech at the Labour Party Conference. - Credit: PA

Public health budgets are effectively being cut or frozen in a host of areas where Covid-19 case rates are higher than the national average, according to Labour.

The party said new pressure on public health spending, which has impacted 2021/22 budgets, will hit efforts to tackle the pandemic, especially in “red wall” areas of traditional Labour heartlands where the Tories saw victories during the 2019 election.

Labour said research by the House of Commons Library revealed that a total of 100 local authorities will receive no additional funding to their public health budgets per person once funding for the anti-HIV drug pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is taken into account.

One in six areas set to miss out on an increase in cash currently have coronavirus case rates of more than 100 per 100,000, including areas that went from red to blue in 2019 such as Wakefield, Bury, Dudley, Redcar and Darlington, according to Labour.

The party said, although on paper public health funding for local authorities in 2021/2022 was £45.4 million higher than in 2020/21, the uplift was in fact less than half that once added funding for rollout of PrEP has been taken into account.

Funding for PrEP has been allocated to local authorities from April 2021 to cover costs associated with its provision and its related services, party officials said.

According to the research, 20% of councils in England will see a drop in funding for public health, with close to half of local authority budgets remaining static.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, speaking before a by-election campaign visit to Hartlepool, said: “A strong local public health response is crucial to getting on the front foot in the battle against Covid in local areas.

“Disgracefully the Tories are cutting or freezing on a head-for-head basis the budgets available for public health teams in 100 towns and communities.

“Many of these areas are more deprived, have more people suffering from long-term illness or battling high infections rates.

“To fail to invest in public health is dangerous and irresponsible, risking communities being left behind and not fully protected.

“Ministers promised to give councils the resources needed to protect their communities.

“Rather than cutting budgets, ministers should keep their promise and give towns, including Hartlepool, Wakefield and Rochdale, the resources they need to drive infections down and vaccination rates up.”

Labour has warned that without additional support there is a risk that some parts of the country could be left behind and potentially stuck in lockdown, should the regional tier system re-emerge.

According to the research commissioned by the party, 31 local authorities will experience a fall in per capita funding in this financial year.

Of the local authorities that will see a cut in allocation, two-fifths have case rates higher than the national average.

Almost 70 local authorities will experience no increase in per capita funding, the Commons Library research suggested.

Of these, Barnsley, North Lincolnshire, Bradford, Sheffield, Blackburn and Darwen and Leicester all have case rates more than double the national average and Rotherham’s rate was triple that last week.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are providing extensive support for directors of public health, and their teams, to protect and improve the public’s health and wellbeing during the current pandemic, and beyond.

“As well as making over £11 billion of funding available to local councils to support them with the costs and impacts of Covid-19, we are increasing the public health grant in 2021/22.

“This will ensure local authorities can continue to invest in prevention and essential frontline health services.”