What next for the future of health security in the UK?

The Mental Health Foundation responds to today’s proposals for the new UK Health Security Agency

Whatever the intent, the proposal announced today for the future of Health Security in England will result in a more fragmented system. We are losing a single national public health body (Public Health England) that currently provides a clear, integrated and cohesive focus on health improvement, and, within this, public mental health.

While the new UK Health Security Agency has a broad public health remit, its predominant focus is on infectious disease control, not creating the conditions and supporting the action needed in our communities to enable people to enjoy good overall health.

It is, of course, vital that the UK is in a good position to respond to pandemic threats. However, in public health terms, health security is a holistic term: the protection from threats to our health. Considering that not all pandemics can be prevented, it is also vital, then, that the country is able to respond effectively to the threats that pandemics pose to the overall health of our country’s citizens and the fabric of our society, including their mental health. Health security is understood in both a collective way – reducing the vulnerability of communities to harms to health – and an individual way – access to safe and effective products, services and technologies.

If this past year hast taught us anything, is that an effective response to pandemics also means holistically addressing the risks to people’s mental health, supporting those who are most vulnerable, and tackling those persistent inequalities that cause many communities to have very different health experiences to others.

The devastating loss of life, months of social isolation and widespread financial instability we have seen over the last year because of Covid-19 has brought despair to individuals, families and communities. Before the crisis, many people in our society with mental health problems were already struggling to access the basic support needed to stay well.  With hundreds of thousands more people likely to experience mental health problems as a result of the pandemic, continuing with business as usual is now not an option.  The creation of this new agency – the announcement of which contains no reference to the mental health effects of the infectious disease pandemics – is far from being the whole of the change we need to see.  

People’s experiences during this time do not have to lead to mental health problems in the future if we have a comprehensive plan to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. In addition to the human cost of mental ill-health, there are compelling economic reasons to ensure that, as we return to living our lives as we used to, we are all able to thrive and play a full part in the national recovery. We are still awaiting the Government's cross-government mental health recovery plan and would like to see this published as soon as possible. The Government needs to be clear what its ambitions are, how they will be measured, and who will be held to account for their delivery.

The Government has today signalled that it will soon be publishing its proposals for the future of national health promotion and health improvement functions, and we will be scrutinising these carefully to see what they mean for public mental health.  It is vital that all parts of the new system are fully accountable for working well together and that public mental health remains a strategic and cross-cutting priority, as it currently is for Public Health England.

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, Director of England and Wales