Public Health Agency and charity in dispute over Lifeline plans


By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

A dispute has broken out between the Public Health Agency  (PHA) and the suicide prevention/crisis counselling charity Contact over plans to revise the Lifeline model and support services.

In a story which VIEWdigital published earlier this week, (, Fergus Cumiskey, CEO of Contact, described Public Health Agency plans to change Lifeline as “unsafe and unfit for purpose”.

In a lengthy statement sent to VIEWdigital, The Public Health Agency (PHA) said it was “gravely concerned that misinformation on the PHA’s Lifeline service has been circulated, and categorically refutes the claims made.
“The PHA wishes to reassure members of the public that protecting vulnerable people in our community remains our priority as we move to an enhanced Lifeline service.

“In particular, the following aspects will remain under the new model:

•           £3.5m budget for Lifeline will be retained

•           Callers will be assessed in exactly the same way as they are now

•           Unified system will ensure people are cared for within a seamless and resilient system

Financially, the same budget of £3.5m will be available for Lifeline and associated support services under the revised model, as is currently the case. There will be no cut in the Lifeline budget. Claims that the plans are a “way of saving money” are therefore simply false.

There will not be any changes whatsoever in how callers to Lifeline are assessed for follow-on counselling support. Furthermore, the ‘eligibility’ of who can access Lifeline follow-on support will remain the same. It is at best inaccurate, and at worst misleading to claim otherwise.

“People who ring Lifeline and are assessed as requiring follow-on counselling will continue to receive it. That is the case now, and that will remain in place in the future service.

“It is also worth noting that there will be additional elements of support added to the service to enhance what is already in place. In the future service:

·         • Capacity for 25,000 sessions of follow-on counselling will remain the same;

·         • An additional 2,680 sessions will be made available for relative and carer support;

·         • A further 6,500 sessions of complementary therapy will be made available when appropriate, to assist service users into talking therapies.

The future Lifeline service will continue to be a free, 24/7 telephone helpline with follow-on support for anyone who needs it.

“The telephone helpline will be managed by one provider, enabling them to provide specific focus on this key aspect of the Lifeline service. Follow-on support services will be managed by one individual provider per HSC Trust area, enabling them to focus on the particular needs of the community and manage the demand for support at a local level.

“Far from being “fragmented”, as the claims suggest, the Lifeline service will be fully integrated, with skilled and experienced staff on the telephone helpline, and a seamless handover to face-to-face support delivered locally across the region within one unified system. This model will also enhance the resilience of this essential public service, and improve access to local counselling services.

“The PHA would reiterate that Lifeline remains a key priority in the fight against suicide and self-harm, it will continue to receive the same level of funding despite a climate of financial constraints, and people who phone Lifeline will continue to receive the follow-on support appropriate to their needs.

“It is also important to remember that during the period of transitioning to the new service, Lifeline continues to be available 24/7 on 0808 808 8000 for anyone who is in distress or despair.”

In reply to the PHA statement, Contact CEO Fergus Cumiskey said: “I am concerned by the tone and content of PHA rejection of Contact’s detailed critique on the PHA future plans for Lifeline.

He added:  “We call for independent evaluation of the current integrated Lifeline model; we call for a brief independent Hillsborough style expert confidential inquiry panel review of all Lifeline recorded client deaths by suicide over the past two years, to ensure difficult lessons learned are applied regionally, demanding removal of all obstacles to cooperative suicide-prevention safeguarding practice; and we call for an independent investigation of PHA governance arrangements for Lifeline. Only factual evidence can inform transparent development plans for Lifeline, based on mutually accountable partnership co-design, as opposed to the current defensive, distant, inconsistent Lifeline governance blame culture.”

• See further information from Contact NI –




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