Over 300,000 families could miss out on Healthy Start


As the cost of living crisis deepens, more than 300,000* families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to miss out on Healthy Start funds they are eligible due to issues with the switchover from paper to a digital system

A large coalition of charities, led by Sustain and The Food Foundation, and including Royal College of Midwives and Royal Society of Public Health, is sending a letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid today (10 March) calling for issues with the digital switchover of the Healthy Start scheme to be fixed immeditately. 

The Healthy Start scheme offers funds worth £4.25 per week to pregnant women and children (0-4 years) who are in low-income families, as well as to all pregnant women under the age of 18. Funds can be used to purchase fruit, vegetables, milk and infant formula. 

The process to digitise Healthy Start began in October 2021. Families have been reporting multiple problems with applying for the cards, using them and trying to access the helpline. The last Healthy Start paper voucher is due to be issued at the end of March. The deadline for eligible families to re-register, apply for a new digital card and transfer with no loss of funds is 10 March. Frontline public health teams, food organisations and child health clinicians are concerned that many more families will lose out on a benefit they are entitled to. According to estimates by Sustain, more than 300,000 families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could miss out on free healthy food funds after the transition, a benefit worth over £1,200 over a child's early years.

The Healthy Start Facebook page has been flooded with complaints: the online application form is rejecting eligible families, cards are difficult to activate, the helpline isn’t working and can cost up to 55p.

The Sustain analysis also shows that more than £63.5 million in vouchers went unclaimed last year because of low awareness of the scheme – and now some public health teams, aware of the scheme’s problems, have stopped promoting it to families for fear they will be put off by all the difficulties with digitisation.    

Sustain campaigner Sofia Parente said:

“Every year millions of pounds of Healthy Start vouchers go unclaimed and families miss out on free fruit, vegetables and milk. We welcomed the digitisation of the service as it was supposed to make it easier to apply and use, as well as reduce stigma. But the opposite has happened. Eligible families are being rejected, cards are failing at tills and calls to the helpline go unanswered. The Government needs to extend the paper vouchers until the digital scheme is working, otherwise families exposed to increasing food prices will miss out” 

Zoe McIntyre, Project Manager at The Food Foundation said: 

“There is no doubt that digitisation of Healthy Start can bring many benefits, but it must be done well, and with a clear understanding of the circumstances of those it is targeting. So many organisations, retailers, and individuals – including Marcus Rashford – have made huge efforts to tackle the issue of low uptake of this Government scheme to make sure low-income young families struggling to afford a healthy diet can get the support they need. So it’s really heart-breaking to hear how many families have been hindered by the digital switchover, rather than helped by it. At this challenging time of rising food prices, rising cost of living, Government really needs to remedy these issues immediately.” 

The analysis also shows that the average take up of the voucher scheme in England in 2021 was 54%. 

You can read the letter in full here

*Calculated from Healthy Start uptake data for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which states shows that as of 27 February 2022, the number of eligible beneficiaries was 338,656. As the Healthy Start website states, this does not include those in receipt of the Healthy Start card and we have concluded that these beneficiaries have not been yet transferred to digital cards. We await further business service information from the NHS BSA

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