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Paul Maynard is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, and Chair of the Financial Shield Learning Network

The tremendous effort to vaccinate the UK population has meant that we are now on the verge of ending the lockdown. For most of us that will come as a great relief.

The pandemic has disrupted all our lives. But we must be aware the pandemic has had very unequal impacts too. The downturn has been one of the most uneven on record, and many people now find themselves in serious debt and financial distress, through no fault of their own.

I know in my own constituency that many individuals, families, and businesses working in hospitality and tourism, events and the arts, have been knocked back very hard. Long before the pandemic, I fought for a ‘Breathing Space’ scheme to provide people seeking debt advice with protection from enforcement action.

I was delighted to see this scheme come into force in May this year, although the 60-day protection that it currently provides could yet need to be extended further if people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, struggle to regain work.

There is a proven link between a person’s financial health and their wellbeing. Without sufficient support, the pressure to repay debts can lead to physical and mental health problems which subsequently constrain employability. A longer ‘Breathing Space’ would undoubtedly help, should the economic rebound we are all hoping to see, fail to come through as quickly as we would like.

But even a longer ‘Breathing Space’ would not be enough for many people with both long-term health conditions and debts. Many of these were struggling prior to the pandemic, and many more are struggling now. Protection from debt enforcement needs to be accompanied by support with their health conditions too.

That is why I’m so pleased to have recently been asked to chair the Financial Shield Learning Network. Funded by Impact on Urban Health, the Financial Shield project is currently being trialled in South London, but it could prove to be of national importance. It is bringing together creditors, health, and advice agencies, to improve outcomes for working aged people who have, or are at risk of, long-term health conditions, and who are experiencing financial problems.

The project is highly innovative. Creditors, including the local councils and housing associations, are sharing information about areas of Lambeth and Southwark where there are concentrations of accounts in arrears. This information is then passed to participating GP practices, who search their patient lists and identify people living in those areas, who have long-term health problems.

The GP then proactively text messages these patients and offers to refer them for help with both their finances and, through social prescribing teams, with non-clinical support, to help them better manage their condition.

On the financial support side, people get help from the project’s new ‘Back on Track’ workers to claim benefits, or to obtain grants for essential items. Whilst, from the participating creditors, enforcement activity is suspended pending a repayment plan being worked out. Councils and housing associations also liaise with each other, rather than compete for repayments.

On the health support side, people get access to a huge range of ‘social prescribing’ activities to help boost their mental and physical health, and hopefully improve their prospects of future employment.

This is the UK’s first model of social prescribing to include debt advice and bring together creditors with healthcare providers. If this scheme could be rolled out to other cities and towns where there are large populations of people with both financial and long-term health problems, it could benefit huge numbers of people across the country.

Early analysis indicates there are sixty-four local authority areas in England alone where the Financial Shield approach may be particularly beneficial, including my own constituency.

As Minister for Legal Support, I immediately saw how transformative social prescribing could be in resolving the complex web of financial, health and legal problems the most vulnerable face. This initiative helps deliver that agenda.

It also goes with the grain of current Government thinking. In England, the NHS Long Term Plan includes an ambition for every one of its 1,250 Primary Care Networks to be able to recruit at least one social prescribing link worker. By ensuring they work effectively with creditors and money advice agencies, as well as by providing support with health conditions, I hope we can better support those who now need our help more than ever before.