UK government launches new office to “level up” nation’s health

The government has continued its shake-up of UK health authorities with the creation of the Office of Health Promotion (OHP), which will focus on issues like obesity, mental and sexual health, and promoting physical activity. 

The OHP will take over the health improvement remit currently the responsibility of Public Health England (PHE), and will “lead national efforts to improve and level up the public’s health,” according to the government.

The new office will sit within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – unlike the soon-to-be-scrapped PHE – and that will enable “more joined-up” action between national and local government and the NHS, with a cross-government ministerial board also set up to focus on prevention.

The OHP will be in place by the autumn and will focus on the 80% of health issues that are not related to the healthcare they receive but due to wider preventable risk factors, such as diet, smoking, and exercise, said the government.

The head of the OHP, who has yet to be appointed, will report to chief medical officer Prof Chris Witty and health secretary Matt Hancock.

Last week, the government announced the creation of a Health Security Agency that will focus on external health threats, including infectious diseases and biosecurity, once again taking on some of the responsibilities of PHE.

The HSA will also have responsibility for the NHS Test and Trace unit, and will be led by current deputy CMO for England Dr Jenny Harries. It is due to come into operation next month.

Both changes are part of broader changes to the UK health system that will be laid out in a new Health and Care Bill, which the government said will be based on the concept of population health, or “using the collective resources and strengths of the local system, the NHS, local authorities, the voluntary sector and others to improve the health of their area.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who went on his own health drive after being admitted into intensive care with COVID-19 last year – said the OHP will be “crucial in tackling the causes, not just the symptoms, of poor health and improving prevention of illnesses and disease.”

At the moment 28% of adults in England are obese and another 36% are overweight, so a majority are puting themselves at increased risk of conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

The move was given a guarded welcome by the British Medical Association (BMA), which said it has been calling for reduced fragmentation of the public health system and better links with public health teams in local authorities.

“There are…still serious concerns about the centralising of public health within the Department of Health,” said Dr Richard Jarvis, co-chair of the BMA’s Public Health Medicine committee.

“If we are to address serious public health problems such as obesity and mental health and truly ‘level up’ the nation’s health, we need to see a properly funded and co-ordinated public health system which, crucially, has the organisational independence to speak out when needed to improve and protect the health of the population.”

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