THE “invaluable” Phone Friends scheme for the elderly in Oxfordshire is at risk after the county council pulled its funding.

The volunteer-led service, run by Age UK Oxfordshire, offers a lifeline to some of the 35,000 older people in Oxfordshire who say they often or always feel lonely.

It was the focus of the Oxford Mail’s Lonely this Christmas campaign in December, which raised £2,335 for future phone calls and recruited 30 potential volunteers.

But this could be under threat after Oxfordshire County Council decided to stop the £33,000 it gives to the £35,000-a-year running costs, with the cash ending on March 31.

Age UK Oxfordshire chief executive Paul Cann said: “We had it confirmed about a week ago. It was the only funding we had to the service.

“The key message is that actually, we are determined to conserve Phone Friends on a lower cost, but we have to be responsible about managing it.

“The donors we had during the Oxford Mail’s campaign have inspired us to work even harder to keep the service going; the money that was raised makes a start.”

Over the next few months the charity will review its current premises in Banbury and has resolved to only apply for funding or tender in partnership with other charities.

The news has come as a shock to older people in the county who use the service, many of whom count it as one of their key points of contact to the outside world.

Former Unipart worker Roy Croucher, 86, who fronted the Oxford Mail’s campaign, said: “I can’t understand these cuts.

“In their mind older people are just a nuisance. I can’t see how they can hit the poor and the elderly like this.”

He added: “I have my phone calls on Monday and Saturday and I’m still finding them helpful.”

Age UK Oxfordshire and Contact the Elderly volunteer Shazmin Sivewright who cares for fellow user Hazel Plested in Headington, said: “Phone Friends is so worth saving. It’s such a lifeline to people who are on their own and don’t see people.

“To Hazel it’s invaluable. She speaks to an advisor from Banbury and you can’t put a price on having someone to talk to.”

Phone Friends co-ordinator Paula Donaldson said: “This is a service we can’t do without that does need money. We are not expensive to run.

“It will probably continue in a different guise, but in the meantime people need not worry; they will get a call. Friendships really are built up here and we have had volunteers saying that if the service closes they will still do the calls anyway.”

Oxfordshire County Council spokesman Chris Birdsall said the local authority was commissioning its own advice service, which would be in place from April 1 but would not be solely for the elderly.

He said: “The service will provide information for older people, adults with learning disabilities, adults with mental health problems, adults with physical and sensory impairments, adult and young carers, young people aged 16+ and families with young children (particularly those with disabled children).”

He added: “The county council’s new and very difficult savings of £69m begin in the 2016/17 financial year.”