A new Office for Health Promotion will be established later this year with the aim of tackling obesity, improving mental health, and promoting physical activity in England.
The new body would also be charged with ‘levelling up’ the nation’s health, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
However, health experts said they were concerned about the impact of recent spending cuts to local authority health promotion budgets, and noted that cash for the new body might have to come from existing health spending.
Tackling Causes of Ill Health
Today’s announcement coincided with the first significant easing of COVID-19 restrictions in England, with larger groups of people allowed to meet outdoors, an end to the ‘stay at home’ rule, and the return of organised sport.
The Prime Minister described the new Office as “crucial in tackling the causes, not just the symptoms, of poor health, and [in] improving prevention of illnesses and disease”.
Boris Johnson, who was hospitalised with COVID during the first wave of the pandemic, said: “COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of physical health in our ability to tackle such illnesses, and we must continue to help people to lead healthy lives so that we can all better prevent and fight illnesses.”
The Office for Health Promotion will be modelled on schemes such as Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, which was established 20 years ago to encourage the public to take ownership of their health and live a healthy lifestyle.
Preventable Risk Factors
England’s scheme would address major public health issues, including obesity, nutrition, mental health across all ages, physical activity, sexual health, alcohol, and tobacco.
Preventable risk factors were responsible for around 80% of people’s health outcomes, ministers said.
England’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, said he wanted to “level up the health of our nation, working across national and local government”.
The Office, which is expected to begin work from this autumn, would be under the direction of the DHSC. An expert lead will be recruited to report jointly to Mr Hancock and England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Prof Chris Whitty.
The new body would be expected to link Government policy-making with the health improvement role currently carried out by Public Health England (PHE).
Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE, commented: “Bringing some of our functions closer to policy-making in the Department under the CMO’s leadership, while maintaining our delivery capabilities in support of the whole system, is an exciting prospect.”
Prof Whitty said an evidence-based and collaborative approach to health promotion was needed because the “non-direct harms of COVID on the public’s health will not be trivial”.
He said: “The Office for Health Promotion will work across both national and local government as well as with the NHS, academia, the third sector, scientists, researchers, and industry to develop evidence informed policies.”
Reaction to the Proposals
Commenting on the proposals, Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said she was “concerned at rumours that no new funding has been secured for this Office”.
She warned that concentrating on individuals and lifestyle missed an important opportunity “when the evidence shows that the most effective health promotion levers are at the fiscal, tax, planning, societal, and environmental levels”.
The King’s Fund said today’s announcement did “not add up to a compelling vision for creating a healthier society” and called for extra funding to support the Government’s ambition. Sally Warren, director of policy at The King’s Fund, said: “The structural rearrangement announced today arrives just days after Government announced local authority public health funding that is 24% lower in real terms in 2021/22 compared with 2015/16.”
The Royal College of Physicians said ministers had given “a much needed update on the Government’s thinking about the future of public health”. Its president, Prof Andrew Goddard, said: “We now need a cross-government strategy to reduce health inequalities, underpinned by the necessary funding to implement it.”
The Health Foundation welcomed the intent to take a more joined up approach to tackling important health issues, but questioned whether the Government had “grasped the full enormity and scale of the challenges ahead”. Its Director of Health, Jo Bibby, said: “Today’s plans also fall short of creating the independent body which is urgently needed for parliament to scrutinise the Government’s actions and ensure that these lead to tangible improvements in the nation’s health.”
Today’s announcement followed the establishment of the new UK Health Security Agency, set to launch next month, which will take the lead in planning, preventing, and responding to future health threats, including infectious diseases.
More details on the Government’s plan for improving public health are expected to be set out later this year.