It’s not yet clear how much this will cost: a Department of Health spokeswoman says that the initiative will be backed by an extra £33.9 billion a year of funding into the NHS by 2023-24 – a real-term increase of £20.5 billion. How much of that will go to funding Hancock’s reform is not yet clear, nor does the government have figures yet for how much it expects to save the NHS as a result. And for all the health secretary’s vision of social prescribing as budgetcutting alternative to medication and therapy,
It is not certain whether GPs will see the matter the same way: quite possibly – in some cases at least – encouraging patients to take part in crafts will be complementary to, rather than replacements for, drugs and therapy.
Hancock gave an example of what he has in mind. A collaborative project between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Hull’s stroke recovery service resulted in nearly 90 per cent of stroke patients feeling better after they learnt to play instruments and eventually performed in an orchestra. They suffered fewer dizzy spells and epileptic seizures, felt less anxiety and enjoyed improved sleep, concentration and memory, better morale and more confidence.
The health secretary has so far said less about the role of crafts in this social prescribing revolution. He ought to, though, since the value of craft and haptic engagement for mental health is long established. At the dawn of occupational therapy in the late 19th century, basket-making was recognised for improving cognitive skills as well as physical ailments. During the First World War, men suffering from shell shock were often encouraged to make baskets (which were then used to carry shells), a craft that helped them to recover from what was called hysterical paralysis of one arm. Basketry was favoured because it aided the war effort, each item could be made in a short time, and its repetitive work was not just soothing but required the use of both sides of the brain.
Anthropologist Stephanie Bunn at the University of St Andrews has been working with Hebridean islanders on a research project called Woven Communities, celebrating basket-making traditions on Lewis and South Uist. It shows how this work held people together and gave them a common purpose after a sense of loss when basket-making stopped being commercially viable.