Should taxpayers fund Zumba, facials and spas for the NHS?

Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of Public Health England, has stated that NHS hospitals should build spas and offer Zumba classes and facials in order to encourage people to live healthy lifestyles. According to Public Health England, the NHS should create ‘health campuses’ where beauty treatments, aerobics, and swimming classes are offered in order to incentivise people to improve their health.

The rationale behind this move is the that if people receive facials and Zumba on the NHS, then they will be more likely to exercise, eat healthily stop smoking, and drink less. These proposals are the latest in a long line of misguided and poorly thought through suggestions from Public Health England. Other bizarre proposals have included encouraging people to lose weight by giving them free cinema tickets (cinema menus being known for their range of healthy snacks such as hot dogs, fizzy drinks and pick n mix sweets), and handing out free bicycles to encourage people to do more exercise.

The latest proposals from Public Health England are wrong for numerous reasons.

First, the NHS should be about providing essential care to those who need it. It has limited resources which it should be using to treat those who find themselves in their local Accident & Emergency department or who are suffering from life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. Nye Bevan’s vision of the NHS was one where people received healthcare free at the point of delivery, not free facials and Zumba classes. 

This leads us onto the second reason why the proposals are flawed. Public Health England refers to ‘free facials’ and ‘free Zumba classes’, but these things are not free. The NHS is funded by taxpayers and, therefore, this money must be well spent. It is right that those who need it should receive free healthcare, but to suggest that taxpayers should be forced to subsidise beauty treatments is arrant nonsense. 

The third reason why such proposals should be rejected is because there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that it will work. Duncan Selbie claimed that ‘this is the smartest move we could make’. Perhaps this was a bold admission of the shortcomings and limitations of him and his team, but is certainly not the smartest thing that the NHS could do. Before any medication or treatment is offered to patients, it has to undergo a series of rigorous trials. Public Health England appears to be advocating that this approach is jettisoned in favour of a policy of ‘if it sounds good, do it’. As discussed above, the NHS has limited resources, and the money that it has comes from taxpayers, therefore any treatments offered by the NHS must be based on research, not wishful thinking.

The fourth reason why the proposals are wrong is because they are not in line with what the public expects from the NHS. For example, the King’s Fund asked the public to score on a scale of 1–10 whether they felt that it is the job of the NHS to keep people healthy (1) or whether it is the individual’s responsibility to keep themselves healthy (10). Two-thirds of the public (65 per cent) agree that keeping healthy is primarily the responsibility of the individual (scores between 7 and 10), while just 7 per cent put this responsibility on the NHS (scores 4 or lower). At the extreme ends of the scale, 36 per cent of adults feel that responsibility lies strongly with the individual (scoring 9 or 10), and just 3 per cent feel responsibility lies strongly with the NHS (scoring 1 or 2). Therefore, it is clear that such proposals would result in taxpayers having to fund something which they do not believe that the NHS should be doing.

Finally, it is incredibly patronising. People are already well aware of the health risks associated with heavy drinking, smoking, eating unhealthy foods, and having a sedentary lifestyle. If the risk of dropping down dead from a heart attack at aged 50 is not enough to motivate people to exercise more and cut down on the fry ups, then it is unlikely that a free facial will do the trick. It is patronising and infantilising to suggest that people are not aware of how to live healthy lifestyles. We should treat people like adults who can take responsibility for their own health.

Public Health England’s latest proposals would result in taxpayers’ money being spent on subsidising beauty treatments rather than treating cancer. The arguments in favour of their effectiveness are not supported by research and infantilise adults. 

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