| 18.4°C Belfast

Scheme offering bikes on the NHS to tackle obesity 'should be rolled out in Northern Ireland'

A cycling scheme which could see bikes being made available on the NHS in England as part of a government plan to boost active travel should be rolled out in Northern Ireland, a charity has said.

The Prime Minister said GPs in areas of England with poor health will be encouraged to prescribe cycling, and patients able to access bikes through their local surgery.

He also revealed that the delayed scheme offering £50 vouchers towards the cost of fixing a bike will go live on Tuesday.

Sustrans, a charity which promotes walking and cycling, said there is currently no plans for a similar scheme to be rolled out in Northern Ireland.

Anne Madden, policy and communications manager at Sustrans in Northern Ireland, said: "We don't have such a scheme coming here but we would welcome something like that.

"Certainly the £50 voucher to help people to fix their bikes would be welcomed by a lot of people.

"You pay on average £30 to £50 for a service in bike shops and I am sure the shops would also appreciate that (the voucher scheme)."

Ms Madden said that bike shops in Northern Ireland have been "flat out busy" due to an upsurge in people cycling in Northern Ireland, as members of the public move away from using public transport during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

"There is a huge interest in cycling," she said. "What the prime minister announced is more of a strategy to tackle obesity and the plague of people being overweight and suffering health problems as a result

"We certainly know that cycling can help address that.

"Anyone who gets out walking and cycling benefits from fresh air and from the exercise, so anything that would encourage people to get on their bike, I think is a good thing."

"In terms of a similar scheme happening in Northern Ireland, at the moment there is a physical activity referral scheme that GP's run and the Public Health Agency fund that. That consists of 12 week referral to gym instructor for people who are overweight.

"That could easily be adapted to incorporate cycling and we would really welcome something similar to come to Northern Ireland."

Josh Murray, an engagement officer with Cycling UK, said: "Over the last couple of months there has been a lot of cycling infrastructure put in England but only a small amount in Northern Ireland.

"If you compared it to what is being spent in England, Scotland and Wales and even in the Republic of Ireland, there is a lot of money being spent and a lot of action taking place, whereas in Northern Ireland, there is very little. "

Mr Murray said that it would be a positive step to introduce similar measures in Northern Ireland, including giving access to bicycles through GP surgeries and the £50 voucher scheme.

"There has been a couple of cycling pop-up lanes in Belfast and a couple of things done with the cycling infrastructure in Londonderry, but that is about the height of it," Mr Murray added.

Mr Murray said he would like see some of the extra £600m recently allocated to Northern Ireland Executive by the UK Treasury for the Covid-19 response to be spent on active travel and cycling.

"As people start going back to the office and kids start going back to school in September it is going to be so important because we can't afford for more people to get into their car again. Before lockdown traffic jams were mad and that impacts on public health.

"We saw the air quality was really poor, but during Covid it really improved. If there is going to be more cars on the road it is going to go back to the way it was."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "A regional physical activity referral scheme operates in Northern Ireland. In addition there are a number of social prescribing schemes across Northern Ireland where individuals can be referred for physical activity support.

"While we are keen to promote cycling for physical activity and active travel, there is currently no regional scheme that provides access to bicycles.

"The Minister will give further consideration to the effectiveness of such approaches."

In May, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced a new walking and cycling champion to promote active travel.

"Our champion will ensure that we deliver our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling. Inspiring our communities, restructuring our spaces, changing forever the way we live – and changing it for the better," she said.

Belfast Telegraph