EXCLUSIVE Already oversubscribed fund will be slashed by over 40 per cent if Britain gets its way

Published: 15/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5986 Page 5

Efforts to track a future flu pandemic could be hampered by swingeing cuts in the European public health budget being sought by Tony Blair, experts have warned.

Cuts to the EU's budget being negotiated would see funding for public health fall by at least 40 per cent by 2013. This would affect panEuropean health programmes such as tracking flu outbreaks and efforts to tackle health inequalities.

EU health and consumer affairs commissioner Markos Kyprianou told a briefing of MEPs last week that by 2013 the cuts would amount to at least 40 per cent of the current ñ52m health budget, as this had been negotiated at the end of the Luxembourg presidency in June.

And the UK presidency, which ends this month, is pushing for still larger cuts across the European budget, with a decision due next week.

Its main aim is to bring down spending on the common agricultural policy, but opposition from France - which says Britain should give up more of its rebate negotiated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher - may mean the axe falls on smaller projects, such as public health.

The European Commission also gives money to public health projects across Europe run by charities and non-governmental organisations, tackling issues like smoking. The pot is already oversubscribed five times over and would be under even more pressure if the budget is slashed.

Tamsin Rose, secretary general of the Brussels-based European Public Health Alliance, said much of the EU public health budget helps fund a network of national agencies that carry out surveillance on flu;

swapping samples and information and working towards a cure.

'If the budget is cut, it could reduce the money that is needed to co-ordinate on flu, ' she said. 'And now is not the time to be doing that.

'You can't say we want to help Romania deal with bird flu and then slash the budget. Where you spend the money shows what you think is important and this indicates the UK government does not see health as important.'

She contrasted public health with spending on border controls, which Mr Blair wants to see increase by 15 per cent.

In October, chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson warned it was 'inevitable' that a flu pandemic will occur in Britain, although not necessarily this winter.

UK Public Health Association chair Professor David Hunter said he thought the EU would be more likely to cut back its work on tackling obesity and inequalities than flu tracking, as this was too high-profile.

'Cutting money on flu could cause a crisis and I think the cuts would come to other programmes, ' he said.

Mark McCarthy, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, said plans to create more effective and efficient health systems, following a European Court of Justice ruling that EU citizens should be able to travel anywhere in the union for the best healthcare, were now under threat.

'The government has talked about centres of excellence to allow people to move abroad for the best care, ' he said. 'Now it looks like being threatened because of the UK presidency's control of overall budget.' He alleged that the programmes 'are being sacrificed to the ambition to keep Maggie's rebate'.

Fears of freeze on DoH public health commitments

The Department of Health has said it still intends to meet its public health commitments despite a leaked memo which appears to suggest many projects will be frozen.

The memo, from the office of chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, says DoH finance director Richard Douglas has imposed a spending freeze. It affects only central programmes co-ordinated by the DoH and not primary care trust budgets.

But UK Public Health Association chair Professor David Hunter fears some commitments in the Choosing Health white paper could be affected.

'The department has always said that public health spending would be protected and now the implication is that will not happen, ' he said.

A DoH spokeswoman said: 'It remains the department's intention to meet its existing commitments. This issue does not affect the NHS.'