GPs to prescribe walking and cycling in new trial to improve mental wellbeing and reduce pressure on NHS

Activities to help improve mental and physical health have been suggested under new health plans

Cycling and walking will start to be prescribed by GPs as part of a nationwide trial to help improve mental and physical wellbeing and tackle health disparities across the UK.

The Department of Transport (DfT) said the prescriptions will also include wheels for wheelchair or mobility users, with other schemes such as all-ability cycling taster days and exercise mental health groups to also be introduced.

Cyclists need to obey the rules of the road, but they help reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

But why has the scheme come about and when does it start? Here’s what you need to know:

When was the scheme introduced? 

On Monday (22 August) the DfT announced that £12.7million has been given to 11 local authorities to fund pilot social prescriptions as well as projects like adult cycle training, walking groups and free bike loans.

The Government said authorities must improve infrastructure alongside the trials so people feel safe undertaking the activities.

The scheme comes as part of the Government’s Gear Change Plan published in 2020, aiming to evaluate the impact of these activities on individuals’ health, such as reduced GP appointments and reliance on medication.

The Department for Transport said several government departments and agencies, including NHS England, Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Sport England, National Academy for Social Prescribing, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Health & Social Care, are working together on the project.

When will the scheme begin?

The pilots of the scheme will begin this year until 2025 in the local authorities:

  • Bath & North East Somerset
  • Bradford
  • Cornwall
  • Cumbria
  • Doncaster
  • Gateshead
  • Leeds
  • Nottingham
  • Plymouth
  • Suffolk
  • Staffordshire

What has been said about the scheme?

Walking and Cycling minister Trudy Harrison said the activities have “so many benefits – from improving air quality in our communities to reducing congestion on our busiest streets”.

“It also has an enormous positive impact on physical and mental health, which is why we have funded these projects which will get people across the country moving and ease the burden on our NHS,” she said.

Chris Boardman, commissioner of National Active Travel, an executive agency being set up by the Government to improve the standards of the UK’s cycling and walking infrastructure, said: “As a nation, we need healthier, cheaper and more pleasant ways to get around for everyday trips.

He added: “Moving more will lead to a healthier nation, a reduced burden on the NHS, less cancer, heart disease and diabetes, as well as huge cost savings.

“This trial aims to build on existing evidence to show how bringing transport, active travel and health together can make a positive impact on communities across England.”

Minister for Health, Maria Caulfield, said: “Getting active is hugely beneficial for both our mental and physical health, helping reduce stress and ward off other illness such as heart disease and obesity.

“The UK is leading the way in embedding social prescribing in our NHS and communities across the country.”

What are the road rules for cyclists? 

The new laws would see cyclists face fines or penalty points if speed limits have been breached.

From 29 January 2022, new changes also saw drivers being told to give priority to cyclists on roundabouts - and not to cut their path.

Drivers should maintain a 1.5m distance when overtaking bikes and motorbikes at 30mph.

Cyclists are recommended to ride in the middle of the road in slow or quiet traffic and when approaching junctions.

Another rule says: “Cyclists should ride in single file when drivers wish to overtake and it is safe to let them do so. When riding in larger groups on narrow lanes, it is sometimes safer to ride two abreast.”

Drivers and cyclists should also give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross at a junction or zebra crossing, as previous guidance said only to give way to those already crossing.

The rules also make it clear that cyclists should give way to pedestrians on shared-use cycle tracks.