A better future for public health is possible, with local government at its heart.
In March, the nation observed a minute’s silence to mark the anniversary of the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown.
This past year has seen so much heartbreak, loss and sacrifice among our families, friends, neighbours and communities. It is right that we reflect upon the terrible impact of the pandemic and the many lives taken from us too soon.
We were therefore pleased to lend support, on behalf of councils, to a cross-party campaign for an annual ‘COVID Memorial Day’ on 23 March, to officially commemorate the lives lost and changed, and to recognise the efforts of frontline and key workers.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s warning that a third wave of the pandemic, currently affecting many countries in Europe, could eventually affect the UK was clearly concerning.
I know that your teams will be working hard as we continue to deal with the reality that managing COVID-19 is going to be an ongoing feature of our work.
The LGA’s recent public health conference was a timely opportunity to share insights and knowledge from the past year, and to look to the challenges ahead.
Opening the conference, Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, highlighted how impressively directors of public health, and the broader local government public health teams, have responded to the pandemic, with the response demonstrating strongly why public health is central to the long-term health of the population.
Professor Whitty highlighted that ill health follows deprivation, and those who have been worst affected by the pandemic are also those who are most sceptical of vaccines. He expressed concern that the effects of lockdown will push more people into deprivation, and responding to this is likely to fall within the remit of councils.
One of his key asks of local government colleagues is that we consider how we can collaborate more with academics to embed research on ill health into our work.
Also at our conference, Health and Care Secretary Matt Hancock MP announced the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), previously titled the National Institute for Health Protection.
Mr Hancock identified two functions of our public health system: health security and health promotion. The UKHSA will focus on the former by leading the UK’s global contribution to health security research, protecting the country from external threats to health such as COVID-19, and responding to threats “with speed and scale”. More details about the Government’s approach to health promotion were expected as first was going to press.
But Mr Hancock told conference he was “in awe” of the way local government has protected and supported residents during the pandemic, by breaking down barriers and coordinating responses to local outbreaks.
He said the Government’s public health reforms – and wider health and care reforms – are about ensuring decisions are taken as close as possible to the people they affect, and that collaborative engagement with local government “is absolutely critical”.
During the conference, we published our new report, ‘Rising to the public health challenge of COVID-19’. It says that while the success of the vaccine rollout means the risk posed by COVID-19 should gradually reduce, the virus will be with us in some form for years to come.
It will be vital that the Government provides greater frontline funding for local public health teams, whose work will be essential if we are to build back successfully and better protect ourselves from future outbreaks.