'You remember other ways to have fun': the loyalty card with free Nando's for recovering addicts

Three years ago, Arjun Patel (not his real name) found it almost impossible to leave his room.

Patel, in his 30s, was using drugs including sedatives and spice to help cope with severe mental health problems, and spent most of his days in a comatose state. “Part of me was like, ‘I’m developing a serious addiction,’ but the drug told me: “It’s fine, don’t worry about it,’” he remembers.

When his mum caught him buying cannabis and realised he had a problem, she took him to the local drug and alcohol service in his area of London. Patel says: “I was glad, because it meant I could finally deal with this.”

With a lot of help and determination, Patel stopped taking drugs, but would only leave the house to go to the service. He found himself very isolated. “You tend to see that in a lot of people, because many of their friends are using drugs and they have to cut them off,” he says. “Once you get into that world, you think you might as well keep using.” He wasn’t working and didn’t have a lot of money, so opportunities were limited.

His situation dramatically changed when he was offered the chance to be part of a new loyalty scheme that rewarded him for attending recovery services. Patel was given a Capital card, which would allow him to accrue points for every session he attended.

Once he had saved enough points, he could spend them at pop-up shops selling toiletries and clothes, the cinema, restaurants and more. Although he was sceptical at first, he now believes the card can change lives. He says: “These things allow you to have a bit of fun. It sparks something in your brain and you remember there are other ways to have fun. You start to develop an identity of being round people and that’s a massive step.”

The Capital card was launched by the charity WDP in April 2017. It is now used in nine London boroughs and in Cheshire West and Chester. Since its launch, 5,400 service users have benefitted from the scheme. The charity has built relationships with 35 different organisations including Nando’s, City Lit, MOD Pizza, Middlesex cricket club, local gyms and others, offering more than 50 different activities, services and products.

More than 990,000 points have been earned – for every intervention you gain 10 points – and more than 155,000 points have been spent. Analysis carried out by London South Bank University has shown that the Capital card was associated with a 50% increased likelihood of service users successfully completing treatment. There is also a free Capital card app.

capital card

The twice-monthly pop up shop at Hackney recovery service sells a range of items including clothes and toiletries. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

According to Manish Nanda, joint chief executive officer at WDP, the card allows service users to enjoy things they may not have been able to previously and get out and about. He says: “That’s the crux of the Capital card– to give people an opportunity to experience things we take for granted or they may have lost a connection with.”

Nanda came up with the idea nine years ago, when he was working at the WDP service in Hackney. Prisoners released from Pentonville used to come into the service on Friday when they were released. “That’s one of the riskiest points in someone’s treatment journey,” says Nanda. “If, on the day of release, they’re on an opiate prescription and they don’t come into the service, there’s a huge risk of potential overdose and death.”

It was a chance conversation with the local barber that sparked the idea of incentivising people to attend the service. While Nanda was talking about the challenges of his work, the barber asked if he could help. Nanda took up his offer and started telling prisoners due for release that if they came to the service on the day of release, they would get their repeat prescription, advice and support, as well as a free haircut. “We started getting more and more people coming in. That was the genesis of the card.”

Since then, the scheme has taken on a life of its own, although not without challenges along the way. Stigma still plays a huge part in getting partners on board. Holly Price, Capital card manager, says: “As soon as you mention it’s for people with drugs and alcohol issues, people don’t want to open their business up, though I do feel that’s changing.” It’s also hard to get enough activities, services and products to meet every service user’s needs, which is why there is now a dedicated member of staff approaching potential partners.

The team, which now comprises four full-time staff as well as volunteers, are still developing the Capital card, and consult service users regularly to get feedback and suggestions. The team noticed that some people wouldn’t spend their points, instead amassing as many as possible to show family and peers how well they were doing. The next update on the app will show how many points have been earned overall, as well your current balance and how many you’ve spent. For people who don’t feel ready to use their points to attend places like the gym or the cinema on their own, the charity now runs group outings. The aim is to support people using the five ways to wellbeing to meet all their needs and encourage them back into society, while the plan in the future is to provide employment opportunities.

The card comes at a time when treatment budgets are being cut. Nanda says: “There’s less resource to deliver these services. It’s really troubling. In respect to austerity biting, the generosity [from people and businesses] is enabling us to think as creatively as we’re able to and harness what’s really good in a community.”

There are many who have benefitted. “Even though I’ve managed to get to a good point in the last year, it’s still taken a long time to get my anxiety levels back to the point where I can do things like go on the train,” says Patel. “Going to meals [at Nando’s] was the first time I had been able to go out for a meal in public in a long time. It’s been amazing in helping me personally.”

He adds: “It gives people hope. That’s a big part of it.”


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