Unions call for government to put Healthy Start food vouchers online

Unions are among 35 organisations which have written to the government to demand Healthy Start vouchers for low-income families need to be available online.

In an open letter to health minister Jo Churchill, the coalition, led by food and farming alliance Sustain and including the British Dietetic Association and the RCM, called on government to speed up development of a modern online application service, rather than relying solely on out-dated paper application forms.

RCM chief executive Gill Walton said: “Healthy Start vouchers provide much needed nutritional support to mothers on low income. Sadly these are not being claimed by many of those entitled to receive them. Placing the vouchers online will be a simple but important way of making them more accessible and increasing take up rates.”

BDA chair Caroline Bovey RD said: “Dietitians see the consequences of health inequalities and food poverty on families in their work every day. The Healthy Start voucher scheme is an important way to address some of these issues and improve children’s health outcomes. Anything that makes it easier for people to access this welcome benefit should be implemented quickly, and promoted widely, including with further investment to raise the value of these vouchers.”

The organisations welcomed last week’s government decision to extend free school meal vouchers through the summer holidays but warned childhood food insecurity does not begin at school age, saying families on a low income need support during crucial early childhood development years.

Healthy Start vouchers bring  this to the table, the group says, by supporting pregnant women and children up to four years old, and yet 47% of families missed out on them last year.

The campaigners also say the scheme helps families get enough vitamin D, which government advises is critical during periods of prolonged lockdown. With predictions of a second wave of coronavirus later in the year, getting the form online is vital to keeping families healthy.

The Healthy Start scheme provides young and low-income pregnant women and low-income families with young children vouchers to purchase vegetables, fruit, milk and infant formula, which can be worth up to £900 per child. However, the only way to apply is via a paper application form that needs to be completed and returned by post – there is no way to apply online. Typically, community and health services help families to access and complete the paper application, but families’ contact with them has been severely diminished during the Covid-19 outbreak and many do not have printers at home.

The letter calls on government to accelerate this modernisation programme in order to ensure vulnerable families can afford the food they need, particularly during the Covid-19 outbreak. While initial steps have been taken to digitise aspects of the scheme over the last year, paper applications will continue to be the only way for the majority of eligible families to apply until at least the end of 2020.

Accelerating the online system would also help to prepare for a likely swell in applications as more people facing economic hardship will be eligible for the scheme. With an additional 1.8 million new Universal Credit claimants since lockdown, health officials could see a significant increase in applicants. Processing paper applications by hand is inefficient and labour intensive at a time when resources need to be deployed effectively within the NHS.

Moreover, take up of the scheme has been notoriously low and declining for many years, despite the benefits for families who do use the scheme.  Modernising the application process will help more families quickly claim this vital benefit. In 2018, it was estimated that thousands of families missed out on £28.6 million worth of vouchers. In 2019, this was estimated to have increased to over £46 million as only 53% of eligible families accessed the vouchers.

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