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At National Voices we are passionate about the contribution the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector makes to help people with long term conditions to live the best lives they can. The work our members do, day by day, combining a deep understanding of the realities of living with health conditions, with support that helps meet people’s practical, social and emotional needs, can transform people’s lives.

From frontline practitioners to senior leaders, we are increasingly seeing the health system valuing the sector’s contribution as well. We are in exciting times—the Five-Year Forward View’s broad aspirations around engaging people and communities have now been translated into tangible priorities and funding commitments, in the NHS Long Term Plan and the Universal Personalised Care action plan. New money has been provided to fund a social prescribing link worker in every Primary Care Network, with commitments to widening access to community activity and peer support across the country.

We welcome the growing recognition by the NHS that people are far more than patients—that they have practical, social and emotional as well as medical needs—and that the VCSE sector is well placed to help meet these, and to undertake the wider work of building stronger communities and support networks. The opportunities for the sector have never been greater.

But there are also risks. Effective social prescribing relies on strong relationships and close collaboration between the VCSE sector and local health and care systems. While these relationships are already established in some areas, in others Primary Care Networks—themselves very new organisations—are being asked to build rapidly from a standing start. And all of this is happening at a time of wider flux in both the health system and the VCSE sector. Inevitably, chances to develop deeper partnerships or build on good practice are being missed.

There are also real concerns in the sector about how we will manage additional referrals from new social prescribing link workers and schemes. We want to partner with the NHS, but capacity is finite and without new resources we will struggle to meet increased demand. While NHS England guidance makes clear that CCGs need to plan with the sector how best to deal with new demand, we know that in some local areas services are already coming under pressure.

The good news is that there is a shared commitment to getting this right—to hearing from the VCSE sector and developing joint solutions to the challenges that we’re facing. National Voices has been commissioned by NHS England to work with them on both social prescribing and peer support.

We’ll be holding a series of regional workshops on social prescribing, and capturing insights from across the country through webinars and surveys, to explore what’s happening in local communities, and the key issues for effective social prescribing. We’ll then work to identify solutions to these issues—either existing good practice that can be implemented more widely, or additional support to help local areas establish the conditions for effective social prescribing.

In our work on peer support we’ll be drawing on the resources we’ve gathered in the national Peer Support Hub, which is hosted by National Voices, and brings together authoritative sources of information and learning on what good peer support looks like. We’ll also be bringing people from across the sector together to think about what the commitment to widening access to peer support means in practice and how NHS England can best support this work.

As in all our work we will need your knowledge, experience and insight, and I hope you’ll be able to engage with us through one of our events, webinars or surveys in the next few months. As I meet with organisations around the country I’m reminded of the commitment and resourcefulness of our sector. If we put our heads together, I’m sure we can sort this.

NPC are hosting a free roundtable on social prescribing on 19 March 2020. Find out more here

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