by GK Strategy 9th April, 2021

The Office for Health Promotion – A new approach to improving public health

In March, the Government announced the creation of the Office for Health Promotion (OHP). a new body that will take over Public Health England’s responsibilities for improving the public’s health. The OHP will sit within the Department of Health and Social Care, and has the objective of developing a strategy to ‘level up’ the health of the nation, including a reduction in health inequalities and tackling issues such as obesity, mental health, and low levels of physical activity. Worryingly, the 2019 NHS health survey estimated that 28% of adults are obese, whilst a further 36% are overweight, indicating the scale of the problem. These issues have been compounded by the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, putting more people at risk of dying or becoming seriously ill, as well as rendering deprived areas and poorer populations even worse off.

At its heart, the announcement provides a revealing insight into the sea-change that governmental health policy has undergone since the General Election in 2019. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has provided numerous chastening experiences for the Government, especially with regard to it’s lack of control over the social care system and the limitations of Public Health England (PHE) in delivering on a remit that ranged from global health security to localised smoking cessation programmes. The announcement of PHE’s responsibilities being split out to the OHP – and the new UK Health Security Agency – demonstrates a commitment to learn from this experience and to prepare for future external health threats. It also illustrates how the Government wishes to combat the biggest public health issues facing society, taking steps to close the gaps that have widened over the last 12 months.

There is a wide understanding of the dangers of poor health behaviours, such as diet, smoking, and low levels of physical activity but it has taken COVID-19 to lay bare the fragility of the health of the population, not least within areas which are most deprived. The associations between more positive COVID-19 outcomes and better general health have also been widely documented. As lockdown begins to relax, the onus is increasingly on the Government to put in place long-term strategies to ensure that the likelihood of people being negatively afflicted by COVID-19 or other diseases as a result of these poor health behaviours are significantly reduced in the future.

The announcement of the OHP crystalises this focus, indicating that the Government will look to take a more proactive stance on health policy, intervening against negative health behaviours before they become an issue, rather than one that relies on treating people at the point of service. This strongly ties into the NHS strategy for prevention – a significant portion of the NHS long-term plan – which aims to prevent avoidable illnesses, and ultimately reduce the burden imposed upon NHS acute care further downstream. For example, in 2016, Public Health England reported that illnesses associated with poor health as a result of diet, smoking or drinking were costing the NHS £11bn on an annual basis.

The significance of this becomes apparent when one considers the (no longer held?) views of the Prime Minister – it was not so long ago that Boris Johnson was railing against so-called ‘sin stealth taxes’ for sugary drinks. The change in stance from the Government should not be overlooked. Clearly, the effects of the pandemic on the nation cannot be ignored, and coupled with the Prime Minister’s own personal experience with COVID-19, has prompted a reassessment of not just his own, but the nation’s long-term health. The Prime Minister admitted that he was “too fat” prior to contracting the virus and he has also urged Britons to shed the pounds. This sentiment is now being reflected in enhanced public health policy.

Organisations across the healthcare sector have an attractive opportunity to work with government on this topic, with a chance to take decisive action to ensure that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is truly as joined up, and as fair, as the Government would like it to be.

If you would like to discuss health policy developments in greater detail, please get in touch with milo@gkstrategy.com



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