Trying to get a response from Government about when the drug strategy will be published seems increasingly like expecting a sensible response from an Alice in Wonderland character.
Alcohol and drugs cause huge harms in our communities yet the Government has no intention of publishing an alcohol strategy and the drugs strategy, written over a year ago, continues to gather dust on the launch pad as it is postponed again and again.
Meanwhile drug-related deaths in England and Wales have hit record levels, with cocaine deaths reaching an all-time high in 2015 and deaths involving heroin or morphine doubling over three years to reach record levels. The failure to publish the drugs strategy means the Home Office is failing to provide the strategic leadership across Government departments at a time when we are seeing the highest number of drug deaths ever recorded. New drugs are causing significant problems and life threatening issues in prisons, amongst the homeless and in emergency departments. Funding for drug and alcohol services are being cut dramatically and benefit changes are resulting in increased homelessness and deprivation.
In February 2016, the Government said it would shortly be publishing a new Drug Strategy. At the 2016 Christmas adjournment of the House of Commons, Mary Glindon MP reminded the House that, barring an unexpected delivery from Santa Claus, it was still not to be seen. She asked again early this year, and was told that it would be “soon”. So “soon” in Government terms, means months, and “shortly” means more than a year. For a brief few days it looked as if we may see the strategy published prior to Easter but alas; it appears the Easter Bunny, like Santa, will fail to deliver.
Local authority funding for drug and alcohol treatment has been slashed by 42% since 2010. Many clients seeking treatment for addiction lead chaotic lives and many struggle with a whole host of difficulties that go far beyond their addiction. They might be embroiled in the criminal justice system and need advice, they might have housing problems or be struggling with trauma, or they might have been in care and survived institutional abuse.
There are more than 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions each year, and alcohol is a contributing factor in more than 200 different health conditions. As Chief Executive of a drugs and alcohol charity, I see the harm that alcohol does on a daily basis. I saw the impact as a police officer. I saw the impact as a probation officer. I saw the impact on children and families as a social worker. Despite the huge impact on crime, community safety, children and links to addiction, mental health problems, cancer and liver disease, the Government has indicated it will not be developing a national alcohol strategy.
NHS England has put in place an inefficient system for rationing access to hepatitis C treatment, an illness that mainly impacts on current or former injectors of illicit drugs. Despite effective treatments being available, only 4% of people with the disease are treated annually. Imagine a plane with a hundred seats but security checks that will only let 4 of the hundred passengers fly. Then because of this inefficient system, the NHS says it cannot justify a deal with pharmaceutical companies to provide access to treatment for everyone.
The Government is putting lives at risk by failing to publish a drugs strategy, failing to have an alcohol strategy and discriminating against those needing hepatitis C treatment because most are from marginalised groups. What is particularly sad is that PHE, NHS England and the Government have done some great research into what needs to happen, but what appears to be missing is the strategies and the accompanying resources.
I would love the Government to prove me wrong by publishing the drugs strategy, writing an alcohol strategy, and agreeing a deal to fund hepatitis C treatment for all. Additionally, there would be a need to agree and ring fence resources to ensure equitable access to drugs and alcohol treatment across England, making drug and alcohol treatment a mandatory responsibility for local authorities.
Do this, and I might stop complaining. In fact, I will be first in the queue to offer my congratulations.