Social prescribing and similar approaches have been practised in the NHS for many years with schemes dating back to the 1990s, and some even earlier (the Bromley by Bow Centre was established in 1984). For long time, through, social prescribing was practised in pockets and largely unnoticed by national NHS bodies.
The past few years have seen an important change: national NHS bodies have embraced social prescribing and committed resource to rolling it out across England. The NHS five year forward view (2014) opened the door with its focus on prevention, its emphasis on the role of the voluntary and community sector, and by citing examples of social prescribing schemes having a positive impact. Subsequently, the general practice forward view (2016) noted the role voluntary and community sector organisations, and particularly social prescribing, can play alongside GP services in offering people community-based support.
The NHS long-term plan (2019) marked a step change in ambition by incorporating social prescribing into its comprehensive model of personalised care. Composed of six programmes including personalised health budgets, the model aims to enable people, particularly those with more complex needs, to take greater control of their health and rather than seeking to directly fund the groups that deliver social interventions, the long-term plan commits funding to the link workers who connect people to the range of support and engagement opportunities-largely run by charity and voluntary organisations-in their local area. The long-term plan set a target that by 2023/24 every GP practice in England will have access to a social prescribing link worker and 900,000 people will be referred by then.
Primary care networks (PCNs), groupings of GP surgeries serving populations of around 30-50,000 patients, are the channel for this resource and in many cases will host the link-worker service. In 2019, a new five-year contract framework for general practices came into effect, which allows every PCN with a population of 30,000 or more to be reimbursed the cost of more than 100,000). By autumn 2020 national NHS bodies were reporting that more than 1,200 link workers were in post.
Alongside funding link workers, national NHS bodies are seeking to grow the infrastructure that supports social prescribing, In 2019, the Department of Health and social care made £5 million available to establish a National Academy of social prescribing. The academy was officially formed as an independent charity in 2020, with support from a number of partner organisations, such as NHS England and NHS improvement and sport England; it plans to focus on raising the profile of social prescribing, building the evidence base and sharing prescribing and explore funding partnerships.
Other government departments have shown a growing interest in the potential of non-clinical interventions in recent years. In 2018 the government's strategy to tackle loneliness backed the roll-out of social prescribing, and in 2020 the Department for Environment, food and rural Affaires announced funding for two-year trial of 'green social prescribing'- initiatives intended to help people engage with the natural world.