Ann McGauran 24 August 2020

Hancock under pressure on anti-obesity plans following PHE closure

Health secretary Matt Hancock is under growing pressure today to say who will take responsibility for the national fight against obesity following his decision to close down Public Health England (PHE).

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has written to Mr Hancock following anger from officials and campaigners, who have highlighted that it is less than a month since Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched a national anti-obesity strategy.

Mr Johnson said at the time that the strategy was crucial to the battle against COVID-19, and to protect the nation’s health. But last week Mr Hancock decided to shut Public Health England, the body that has responsibility for fighting obesity, and said it would be replaced by the National Institute for Health Protection.

The new body will focus on external threats to the UK, pandemics and infectious diseases, but will not take on the public health protection roles of PHE.

Mr Ashworth has called on Mr Hancock to urgently explain who will now be responsible for obesity, drug and alcohol services, vaccinations, anti-smoking, and sexual health services. The shadow health secretary told The Observer at the weekend: ‘Not only is a major structural organization mid-pandemic risky and irresponsible but it has left open big questions as to who will lead on important life-saving health improvement agendas including obesity, anti-smoking, addiction and sexual health services.

‘Weeks ago Boris Johnson was telling us his obesity strategy was vital to building resilience ahead of a second wave. Now he can’t even explain who is responsible for delivering it.’

Whitehall sources told The Observer the government remained totally committed to the anti-obesity drive and would be consulting widely about how best to take forward this work.

Last week the Local Government Association (LGA) said it was concerned that stigmas around the obesity issue are contributing to a rise in social care costs. If these are not tackled, obesity’s major implications for health could ‘bankrupt’ social care and the NHS, the LGA warned. It said patients whose ill-health may be linked to obesity should be routinely weighed at appointments.

Last week, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy responded to the abolition of PHE in a blog, saying: 'Arguably the time to ensure that we have national organisations able to cope with the surge of an inevitable pandemic is before it arrives.

'Dismantling a national public health agency in the middle of a pandemic citing this to not be the case is a bold move,' she continued. 'Aiming to have set up the replacement within weeks, ready for a potential second wave seems ambitious and presents a significant risk.'

She said that with the public health system about to undergo significant change, the ADPH was 'keen to ensure the transition does not disrupt our COVID response, or indeed the other health protection and health improvement work PHE provide leadership on'.

The ADPH 'will play an active part in ensuring that the new public health system is as effective as it can be to meet current and future public health challenges', she added.

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