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Mid-August is usually a quiet time, with many people away on leave and the school holidays in full swing. Even in the middle of a pandemic, it feels like a pause for breath.
I suspect staff at Public Health England may have been thinking the same until the weekend. Finding out via the Sunday papers that the organisation you work for is about to be axed cannot be a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, it seems to be an increasingly popular way for the government to announce its more controversial policy changes.
“What worries me is that once again public health as a whole is being undervalued”
From the contact I have had with senior people at the organisation, I know they are concerned about the future of the talented and dedicated staff who work for PHE. They have faced many challenges over the last six months – haven’t we all – and do not deserve to be treated this way.
There is inevitably an unpleasant feeling that ministers have opted to lay the blame for many of the mistakes made during the Covid-19 crisis at the door of PHE. But this and other criticisms, including reports that management consultants McKinsey were paid £500,000 plus to advise on setting up PHE’s replacement, the National Institute for Health Protection, have been made elsewhere.
What worries me is that once again public health as a whole is being undervalued and left at risk of being put on the backburner. What about all PHE’s vital health promotion and illness prevention work in areas such as obesity, smoking, alcohol and children’s health – to name just a few. Will that be taken on by the new body or split up and moved elsewhere, or simply lost? No one seems to know at this stage, and that is a concern.
These and other areas of public health work may sometimes be hard for the policy makers and purse string holders to take an interest in: outcomes can be difficult to demonstrate, often require long-term efforts and are, therefore, often viewed as hard to sell to potential voters.
But that is to miss the point. By failing to focus sufficiently on public health and prevention, politicians are storing up future trouble for health and social care services, which are then required to pick up the pieces. I once heard it neatly described in terms of a river, with the need to tackle problems upstream before they result in a flood downstream.
Dismantling an established public health body in the middle of a pandemic seems like folly and puts the country at risk of further avoidable problems as the restructure distracts staff from the crucial job in hand. However, forgetting the rest of public health and prevention potentially risks an even bigger misstep for the future.
Nevertheless, this is the direction government has chosen, so we urgently need a clear and evidence-based plan for the future of public health services. The consequences of failing to do so do not bear thinking about.
Calling all students
I would also like to highlight that Nursing Times has launched its annual search for our next group of Student Nursing Times Editors.
Starting during September, our editors for 2020-21 will represent their specialty – mental health, child, learning disabilities, adult and midwifery – for 12 months.
The role is an exciting opportunity to support peers, develop writing skills and reflect on practice. As well as a huge CV boost, it is an opportunity to promote the causes that matter to you and get your voice heard among a wide audience.
I would like to urge all our student readers to consider applying. Click here for more information on how to apply.