Austerity cuts to Meals on Wheels will ultimately but assuredly backfire, says Neel Radia, chair of the National Association of Care Catering
For more than 70 years Meals on Wheels (now called the Community Meals Service) has embedded itself in British culture. The fantastic service is as British as the Sunday roast and few people can remember a time when it did not exist.
The service was originally set up in 1943 to deliver meals to individuals at home who were unable to purchase or prepare their own. Today, it is as valid and vital as ever. It plays a crucial role in communities and ensures that the vulnerable and elderly have a lifeline that keeps them nourished, socially independent and in their own homes for longer.
Contrary to popular belief, the service is not established in law. There is no statutory obligation for councils to provide it and it could cease to exist at any time.
The term ‘postcode lottery' is bandied about a lot, but access to the Community Meals Service really is down to geography and policy.
The fragility of the service has been highlighted in recent times of austerity, with councils either restricting its provision or closing the service down to save money. This ‘solution' is as short-term as it is short-sighted.
The consequences of limiting the service are huge and must be understood before any further damaging and irreversible cuts are made.
Community meals are not a luxury. The service is a crucial tool in keeping at bay more serious and costly health issues. Helping the elderly stay at home, properly nourished and hydrated, reduces malnutrition-related admissions to hospital, which cost the taxpayer considerably more than community meals. The average cost of an NHS bed, not including treatment, is £255 a night.
Malnutrition costs the UK a staggering £13bn a year, £7.3bn of which is related to the elderly.
This, you may be surprised to learn, is more than the cost of obesity.
Taking on board the facts regarding the cost of malnutrition and hospital admissions and the ageing population, the question we have to ask is whether we can afford not to have a
community meals service in the UK. And if the answer is no, we should consider protecting this crucial service and making it statutory.