The number of councils providing meals on wheels to vulnerable older people has dropped below 50% for the first time.
Research for the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) revealed that just 48% of authorities provide a service, compared to 66% two years ago. More than nine in 10 providers (91%) expect there to be further reductions in coming next 12 months.
The NACC said the under-investment is putting the elderly at risk and will place “unnecessary pressure” on the NHS because meals services help prevent hospital admissions and extend the time residents can live at home. Better nutritional care has previously been identified as the third largest source of cost savings to the NHS.
NACC chairman Neel Radia said the study – carried out by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) on behalf of NACC for this week’s Meals on Wheels Week – highlighted a “very worrying trend”.
“Meals on wheels is so much more than just a meal,” he explained, “it's a vital preventative service, and prevention is better than cure.”
Radia accepted that council budgets are being squeezed, “but withdrawing a service that can help keep someone out of hospital is a false economy in the long run because unnecessary hospital stays and bed blocking are a huge problem for the NHS”.
The cost of a two-course lunch that could prevent so-called “bed blocking” hospital stays is just £4.30. The cost of keeping someone in hospital, by comparison, is around £400 per day.
Some authorities do not take the nutritional side to meals on wheels seriously enough, Radia added. “We have even seen instances in the past where councils have stopped providing the service and directed people to fast food outlets on their website, which is appalling.”