I wrote the following article for The Guardian
In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to tackle the nine-year gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, placing this at the top of her list of burning injustices. This yawning inequality has defeated successive governments, and the gap is even wider between rich and poor for years lived in good health. Closing it will require action across areas such as poverty, housing and education, as well as those more conventionally thought of as affecting health. May will need to start early and look far beyond the short-term political cycle for results.
Public health seldom makes headlines. We tend not to recognise, let alone thank it for preventing disease or life-changing accidents, despite public health measures transforming our life expectancy. We are more likely to focus on and appreciate the specialists who treat a condition than to complain about the absence of the expertise or policy that could have helped to prevent it.
The childhood obesity strategy was the first test of the government's determination to take action on health inequality. It was greeted with near-universal dismay because of the wasted opportunities to make a difference. Whole sections from earlier drafts, covering promotions and advertising, were conspicuously erased and reformulation yet again left to ineffective voluntary agreements. The final paragraph sums up the tone that it will be "respecting consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, our need to eat". This crass statement entirely misses the point; of course children need to eat, but the childhood obesity strategy needed to make sure that they benefitted from a better diet.
Five years ago, amid the huge controversy surrounding the Health and Social Care Act, one proposal received a cautious welcome: the transfer of responsibility for public health from the NHS to local authorities. It was felt that local authorities could make a greater difference to the health and wellbeing of their communities if the right expertise, powers and funding were based there rather than within a health service more focused on treatment than prevention of disease. In a report published today, the Commons health select committee has looked at those changes and made a number of recommendations about how public health could be strengthened to make sure that it has the tools to do the job. These will be key to helping to narrow health inequalities.
The chief executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens, has rightly called for a "radical upgrade" in public health and prevention, not only for the benefits to health but because it will be essential to reducing future demand for health services. The future financial sustainability of the NHS depends on the prevention of more expensive long-term conditions. This was not the time to undercut the role of public health with budget reductions, including in-year cuts. Witnesses before the committee described their extreme frustration at these decisions, which they described as "irrational" given the current focus on reducing demand.
While local authority public health teams are doing their best to cope with funding cuts, the potential impact of this was clear, and unsurprising – figures from a survey conducted by the Association of Directors of Public Health show that large proportions of local authories are already having to reduce a wide range of different public health services.
Perhaps more surprising was that we heard from witnesses – both from local authorities and from NHS organisations – a sense that prevention is no longer seen as the responsibility of people practising in the NHS. While local authorities now hold the ring for funding and co-ordinating public health and preventative work across their local area, every NHS professional has the potential to advance the prevention agenda in every patient appointment they carry out – but they will also need the time and space to do so. It is also a shame that those messages on improving health will continue to be drowned out by the unfettered advertising and promotion of junk food and alcohol.
While the local mechanisms are in place to embed health in all policy decisions, this will not succeed without stronger, more joined-up action at a national level. At a time of budget cuts it is more important than ever that local authorities have the levers to make a difference. Unfortunately, they have their hands tied when it comes to negotiating with business interests even where the health of local communities is at stake. The government could and should introduce health as a material consideration in planning and licensing to allow proportionate action to develop healthier communities, homes and workplaces.
I hope that the government will prioritise health inequality, but the early signs are not encouraging. If future policy is to be judged by the childhood obesity "plan", we can expect little real progress. Tackling health inequality requires far more than warm words on education and personal responsibility.