Healthy lifestyle role 'for all society'

Andrew Lansley: "Rather than nannying people we will nudge them...to make healthier lifestyles easier"

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Schools, employers, the food and drink industry and communities themselves are being urged to do their bit to make the nation healthier.

Ministers said they wanted to tap into the potential of all of society in setting out their public health plans.

Projects being promoted include everything from bike training in schools to voluntary cuts in salt and fat content by food manufacturers.

Councils will get a ringfenced budget to coordinate the push in England.

This pot, which will be handed over from the NHS, will total at least £4bn a year from 2013, the government's public health white paper, Healthy Lives, Healthy People, said.

It will be accompanied by the transfer of local public health directors from the NHS to local government.

Protection

The government believes the wider remit of councils in areas such as housing, transport and leisure puts them in a stronger position to tackle smoking, drinking and obesity.

The protection of the public health budget - the first time this has been done since the 1800s - is also considered essential because of the cuts councils are facing following October's Spending Review.

Analysis

The public health white paper is big on rhetoric. But the challenge now will be turning that vision into reality.

Take the role of schools. While mention has been made of creating an Olympics-style competition, doubts still remain about how well school sports will be funded.

The entire schools budget system is being redrawn, meaning an end to some protected money for PE programmes.

There is also a great deal of scepticism about the role industry will actually end up playing.

The government has promised more details on this - and individual strategies for everything from drinking to smoking - in the new year.

What remains certain, however, is that 2011 promises to be a big year for the public health community.

To support local government, Public Health England will be created inside the Department of Health to provide advice and support as well as taking a lead on coordinating emergency planning for outbreaks such as flu.

A health inclusion unit will also be established to oversee the drive to reduce health inequalities, which have widened over the past decade.

Extra money - dubbed health premiums - will be given to the poorest areas to help tackle some of the most entrenched problems.

But details on how the government aims to tackle individual problems will not be spelt out in full until the new year.

The white paper talks about building on the success of current schemes, such as bike training in schools and the prominent promotion of fruit and vegetables in convenience stores.

There are also suggestions new schemes will be set up, including an Olympics-style competition for schools and a programme called the Great Swapathon whereby members of the public will be able to get vouchers to exchange for healthy pursuits such as free swimming and gym membership.

Industry

It is hoped the private sector will play a key part in funding these projects.

Start Quote

This is a tremendous opportunity to put health at the heart of public service”

End Quote Professor Lindsey Davies UK Faculty of Public Health

In fact, the white paper makes reference to a "responsibility deal" with industry.

Again, this has yet to be finalised, but the hope is leading companies will give money as well as committing to making their products healthier by reducing sugar, salt and fat.

The publication of the plans comes on the same day the Treasury announced it was to increase duty on higher-strength alcohol in a bid to encourage responsible drinking.

This is something health ministers have talked about being in favour of before, although the move is separate from the public health announcements.

The white paper said the key to encouraging healthier behaviour lies in creating the right environment and then "nudging" people into making different choices.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has in the past been critical of what he has said has been the lecturing tone of previous public health drives.

How all of society can help

  • Employers - The white paper calls on employers to provide better training for managers, forge closer links with occupational health and set up mini competitions / challenges between staff in activities such as cycling.
  • Schools - Already heavily involved in schemes such as bike training, which ministers wants them to continue. Other projects in the pipeline include an Olympics-style competition.
  • Industry - Ministers are already on record as saying they want the private sector to get more involved in backing public health campaigns. They are also keen on manufacturers to voluntarily cut salt, sugar and fat content in foods further.
  • Communities - In keeping with the Big Society drive, mention is made of getting members of the public involved in networks and social enterprises to encourage healthy behaviour.

Unveiling the white paper, Mr Lansley said "everyone" had a role to play.

He added: "It has two aims - to improve the health of the nation and to improve the health of the poorest fastest."

Both the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health welcomed the impending changes.

Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, added: "This is a tremendous opportunity to put health at the heart of public service."

But she warned there was now much work to be done to achieve the aims set out, describing the next few years as "critical".

Meanwhile, shadow health secretary John Healey was sceptical about the plans.

"Nudge is nothing new. Good public health has always been a mix of individual responsibility and government action.

"But any good in Andrew Lansley's plans will be knocked aside by the higher unemployment, greater poverty, poorer housing and cuts to school sport."

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