Public Health England priorities and transition outlined

Public Health England (PHE) has received its priorities for the next year, from Jo Churchill MP, Minister for Health.  

After acknowledging the role PHE has played in combatting COVID-19, Jo Churchill went onto say that, from April 2021, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will have the leadership responsibility for health protection in England. The transition of power will not be fully complete until September 2021.  

The Office of Health Promotion (OHP) has not been officially launched yet but, as outlined in the letter, several functions of PHE will transition across to OHP during the year.  

Public Health England will be dissolved, and their major operations will be assumed by the UKHSA and the OHP under the new plans, after the move to close down PHE was mooted last year.  

There are areas where PHE will be expected to operate before the organisation is closed, including: reducing health inequalities, obesity, healthy weight, and nutrition, mental health, tackling health harms, sexual and reproductive health, early years, public health reforms and evidence reviews.  

The following actions will be taken to tackle health inequalities:

  • Working with NHS England to support recovery post-COVID-19 in a way that focuses on tackling health inequalities, for example through marketing activity to help increase uptake rates of cancer screening and vaccinations in hard-to-reach groups.
  • Continue to monitor the effect of the pandemic on health inequalities including, for example, through development of the new COVID Health Inequalities Monitoring for England tool, the Wider Impact of COVID-19 on Health tool and Health Profile for England 2021.
  • Support and advise the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on the government’s prevention and ‘levelling up’ priorities, including evidence on the role of commissioning in delivering fair and equitable health and care services and on reducing health inequalities through sustainable health and care system by improving access, experience and outcomes. 
  • Work with local and regional partners including local government and NHS England and NHS Improvement to support the development of COVID-19 recovery plans and activities that address health inequalities as a priority .
  • Contribute to the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit’s work to progress the Minister for Equalities’ COVID disparities project that builds on PHE’s June 2020 report into COVID disparities.

For obesity and health management, PHE will be expected to play a role in halving childhood obesity by 2030, and through the Section 31 grant to local authorities support provision of: up to 455,000 additional adult lifestyle weight management services; up to 6,000 additional children and family lifestyle weight management services; and trial an extended brief intervention via the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for 60,000 to 85,000 children.

It will also be expected to: introduce a new Healthy Weight Coach training module to ‘improve the training offer for wider Primary Care Network staff’; continue to ‘deliver and expand’ the Better Health campaign; to develop and drive take-up of the NHS weight loss plan app; and initiate development of a public facing Nutrient Profiling tool to support businesses with calculating the ‘nutrient profiling scores’ of products.

Mental health is a significant challenge for PHE, and several actions are expected of the organisation to help address mental health problems in England:

  • Provide timely, high-quality data and evidence to influence national policy including: 
  • Identifying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the population’s mental health and wellbeing and on specific high-risk groups through developing a dashboard to support publishing monthly mental health surveillance reports 
  • Designing the national Near-Real-Time Suicide Surveillance programme based on learnings from the pilot 
  • Understanding the impact of employment changes on mental health 
  • Deliver public mental health commitments set out in the COVID-19 Mental Health Recovery Action Plan for PHE, including: 
  • Allocating grants of the Mental Health Prevention Stimulus Fund for local authorities in the most deprived areas of England and developing a methodology to evaluate their impact 
  • Supporting DHSC in the development and testing of a mental health impact assessment 
  • Continue to raise awareness of the resources available through the ‘Better Health: Every Mind Matters’ platform.

Addiction is discussed in the open letter, in the section “Tackling Health Harms” with the PHE withholding responsibility of the following steps:  

  • Supporting delivery of relevant actions from Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs by supporting delivery and monitoring the impact of four cross-government drug and/or alcohol treatment grants 
  • Contributing to DHSC’s development of the government’s addiction strategy 
  • Supporting DHSC’s development of a new tobacco control plan to deliver the government’s smoke-free 2030 ambition, including smoking cessation behaviour campaigns.

Sexual health has only two targets for the year ahead and will be a part of the government’s target to eliminate HIV transmission by 2030. This will include:

  • Publishing evidence on the impact of reconfigured sexual health, HIV, and hepatitis services in response to COVID-19 
  • Providing public health evidence, expertise and analysis in support of DHSC’s development of the government’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy and the government’s HIV Action Plan.

Early years care has received a boost recently with more funding for digital maternity records, and PHE will focus on early years modernising care and will further collaborate with the Department of Health and Social Care. It will:

  • Continue the modernisation of the Healthy Child Programme with a focus on speech, language and communication and intensive parenting support to contribute to reduction in health inequalities 
  • Contribute evidence to Leadsom’s Early Years Review for maternity and the first two years 
  • Improve the evidence and developing training to support healthy weight and healthy lifestyles during pregnancy and during early years
  • Supporting DHSC in the evaluation of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire digitalisation programme and provide data and analytical support for contract negotiations.

Public Health reforms will also come under the umbrella of PHE over the course of the next year and will see the full transition of power between PHE and the UKHSA. A list of the public health reform priorities are below: 

  • Supporting the design and full establishment of the UKHSA 
  • working with DHSC to develop the OHP and future healthcare public health and prevention arrangements 
  • support DHSC to develop a new health promotion strategy to improve health, tackle inequalities and contribute to levelling up through the provision of appropriate advice, evidence and expertise 
  • Continue to develop its ‘sender’ activities so that all PHE’s functions and services, assets, posts, information and other resources that form part of PHE have been appropriately identified, and are ready to be transferred to their future destinations 
  • Engage with receiving organisations to agree a joint transition plan and to ensure that all people, posts and functions, including data and systems, safely transfer with no loss of access, functionality or security in line with new accountabilities 
  • Ensure that all activities that are required to dissolve PHE have been carried out to the standard required and to an agreed timeframe.

Find the full letter and list of priorities, here.