Action on Sugar React to the Closure of Public Health England
On Saturday, the Telegraph reported that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock planned to replace Public Health England - an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, who therefore report to Mr Hancock - due to concerns over PHE’s response to the pandemic. This was confirmed in the Secretary’s speech at the Policy Exchange on Tuesday. The organisation replacing PHE is the National Institute for Health Protection which will protect the country from ‘External threats like biological weapons, pandemics, and of course infectious diseases of all kinds’.
While a consultation has been promised, the lack of information provided on the future of all of PHE’s vital work is very concerning. Who will now take on responsibility of their crucial reformulation programmes, and will known issues with these programmes (such as a lack of transparent monitoring, a lack of ambition with the targets and a lack of engagement with industry to ensure compliance) be addressed in the shuffle? Mandated actions have been promised if progress towards PHE’s voluntary programmes was poor. Will this commitment be honoured?
Matt Hancock has suggested that obesity prevention may be transferred to local authorities or even healthcare professionals. We have serious concerns about how such a move would impact local authorities and if they will be given the necessary funding and powers to address this. Furthermore, while GPs have the potential to take on more prevention work, they do not currently have the required training and education in evidence-based nutrition to address all diet-related non-communicable diseases.
Even while in the grasp of the pandemic, obesity reduction is crucial to improving our resilience, particularly in the face of a second wave of the virus. PHE’s own evidence review highlighted that overweight and obesity are independent risk factors for the virus. Now, and once the pandemic has passed, reducing obesity and reducing inequalities are priority actions but the Government has effectively side-lined this work.
As worrying as this development is, it is now crucial that public health is given the status it deserves, under a properly funded, independent and accountable organisation that is free from government and food industry interference.
Mhairi Brown, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for Action on Salt and Sugar, said:
“Scrapping PHE without consultation, on a Sunday morning, behind a paywall and all while Parliament isn’t sitting makes it difficult to see this as anything other than avoiding scrutiny and making PHE a scapegoat. However critical we have been of PHE in the past, their remit is broad and covers much more than surveillance of contagious diseases, including health screening, health promotion and obesity prevention programmes. This news leaves us with serious concerns about how prevention will now be managed.”