Public Health England closure sparks fears over charity partnerships

Voluntary sector organisations hold contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds for improving health and wellbeing

(Photograph: Irina Iriser/Pexels)
(Photograph: Irina Iriser/Pexels)

Charities face uncertainty about partnerships with Public Health England potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds after the body was scrapped by the government. 

PHE, which is tasked with making the public healthier and reducing differences between the health of different groups by promoting healthier lifestyles, sits within the Department for Health and Social Care.

Last month, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announced that PHE would be ditched and merged into a new National Institute for Health Protection alongside NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Third Sector asked the DHSC what would become of the work charities did with PHE in areas such as young people’s mental health, tackling obesity, and smoking and alcohol misuse.

The health department declined to directly answer the query.

It simply reiterated its commitment to working closely with individuals and stakeholders on the design of the NIHP, and to follow best practice in informing, engaging and consulting with individuals on opportunities in the new organisation.

The DHSC said the move to the NIHP was about growing the UK’s national public health capability, not reducing it.

The precise scale of the sector’s involvement in contributing to improving health, wellbeing and care outcomes is unclear, but research by the campaign group NHS for Sale put the value of contractual awards given to the sector for 2018/19 at more than £760m

Charities are also involved in social prescribing, which works by referring NHS patients to local voluntary and community services to improve their quality of life, health and wellbeing, and reduce the likelihood that they might need to access NHS services in future.

But a recent report by National Voices, a coalition of health and social care charities, found more funding was needed to help meet increased demand for the service.

National Voices is also part of the Health and Wellbeing Alliance, a programme jointly managed by the DHSC, PHE, and NHS England.

It is made up of 20 VCSE members representing communities that share protected characteristics or experience health inequalities.

Charlotte Augst, chief executive of National Voices, said: “As a sector we are concerned with how people’s health and lives interface. We are very interested in the parts of PHE’s portfolio that now face an uncertain future: inequality, obesity, public mental health, community and place. 

“It is essential that this valuable leadership continues one way or another, including the many partnerships PHE has formed with voluntary and community organisations over the years.”

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