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Autumn budget: Sunak must make good on mental health commitments

Autumn budget: Sunak must make good on mental health commitments

By Jess Hacker
31 August 2021

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The upcoming spending review must dedicate ‘critical capital investment’ to the mental health sector to tackle the most immediate challenges caused by the pandemic, NHS Providers has said.

The half-yearly budget update – to be delivered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on 27 October – is expected to outline longer-term public spending plans coming out of the pandemic.

Ahead of the update, NHS Providers cautioned that ‘hard won progress on mental health treatment and services is in jeopardy’ if the NHS does not get the critical investment it needs.

It noted that around 1.6 million people are ‘officially waiting for care’, but that private estimates from the sector suggest around 8 million more are not meeting the threshold to access the services they need to help them.

This comes two weeks after new analysis revealed the number of under-19s waiting for urgent treatment for eating disorders tripled during the pandemic, while the number waiting for routine support more than quadrupled.

NHS Providers also reported that on the frontline rising demand and longer waits translates into bed occupancy above safe levels and inappropriate out of area placements with people treated miles from home.

Urgent funding is needed to recruit enough appropriate and trained staff, expand community services to avoid inpatient admissions where possible, and to increase bed numbers.

‘The upcoming spending review must make good on commitments to date which, despite years of underinvestment and the enduring care deficit, had started to improve services and experiences for mental health patients,’ Saffron Cordery, chief executive of NHS Providers, said.

She clarified that the settlement for mental health must also recognise that trusts are treating more patients than ever before, and that Covid-19 has greatly influenced the number and complexity of cases.

‘If we are serious about putting mental and physical health services on the same footing, we must recognise that nearly 10 million people are waiting for some kind of care or treatment for a mental health condition,’ Ms Cordery said.

Throughout the pandemic, mental health services have been warning that waiting times are worsening, that the number of cases is increasing, and that they are becoming more complex.

A May survey found that 84% of trust leaders have said waiting times for children’s mental health services had worsened over the preceding six months, while more than nine in 10 (91%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that presentations to these services are ‘more acute and complex’ than in the past.

Recent proposals from NHS England suggested a new four-week maximum waiting time target for children and young people should be introduced, with an associated consultation on the standard running until 1 September.

Similarly, the NHS Confederation urged last week that representation for mental health must be ensured on ICS boards after finding such services for children and young people are reaching a ‘tipping point’.

Meanwhile, the Nuffield Trust warned that failing to nurture mental health support staff will affect patient care, with those staff members experiencing more abuse, poorer working conditions and fewer opportunities than other NHS staff.

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