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This month, a landmark Bill got one step closer to becoming legislation. The Tobacco and Vapes Bill, if enacted, has the potential to save thousands of lives and billions of pounds for the National Health Service (NHS). The creation of a ‘#SmokeFreeGeneration’ would protect young people from the dangers of tobacco and be a key building block of a healthier future. It would also build a lasting legacy for the Prime Minister, for Labour have promised to back the Bill.

Prevention lies at the heart of the Bill. It is prevention that holds the key to easing pressure on a healthcare system that is buckling under a backlog of cases and reduced staff capacity, to include a waiting list which currently stands at 7.6 million. It is a failure in prevention that lies at the heart of the surge in post-pandemic childhood obesity, and the sharp rise in the number of measles cases

Prevention needs to be the thread that runs through public policy when it comes to protecting our health. It is vital to building a healthier and more productive future.

But a productive future is not going to be possible without a healthy workforce. People in England’s most deprived neighbourhoods work longer hours than those in more affluent areas, but live shorter lives with more years in ill health, costing an estimated £30 billion a year to the economy in lost productivity and causing enormous harm.

Last month, the ONS published data showing that up to 3 million people were not looking for work due to ill health. This should cause deep concern. To get our economy moving again we need to put the health of the public further up the political agenda. More than that, public health needs to be everyone’s responsibility.

For millions of people in our workforce, it already is their responsibility. Allied health professionals, sports and fitness trainers, town and country planners, community health champions, emergency services, pest control workers, environmental health officers, cleaning and hygiene operatives and many more all do their bit to protect and promote better public health – sometimes without knowing it.

It is occupations like these that make up the UK’s Wider Public Health Workforce.  Working across a vast range of settings, environments and workplaces, the wider workforce makes a huge net contribution to protecting the health of the public. Expanding it should be the next step in the UK Government’s public health strategy. There are up to 1.5 million people in the wider workforce that could help support better public health outcomes with more training and support. A national workforce strategy for the whole public health workforce would be a cost-effective, bold policy move from the Government and would be cost effective.

Whether it is making sure our food is safe to eat, the air we breathe is clean, the communal spaces we use are hygienic or the places we live in are designed with our wellbeing in mind, the wider workforce do a huge amount of work that isn’t always recognised. Yet they are not considered specialists in public health and their impact is not taken into account when making health policy.

The Royal Society for Public Health has recently published a report outlining how the Government can tap into the huge potential in the Wider Public Health Workforce. 

First, the UK and devolved nation governments ought to develop a cross-sector national strategy for the whole UK Public Health Workforce. This would include business, public health and other industries.

Second, the public health sector and relevant government departments ought to think collectively about how to resource, upskill and empower the Wider Public Health Workforce to maximise their impact. 

Third, the Wider Public Health Workforce should be better recognised as contributing to public health and prevention.

And last, the Wider Public Health Workforce needs clearer routes into public health and ways to develop and be recognised for its expertise in public health. These would also create better career development opportunities and progression into more specialised public health roles.

We want more people to develop and grow their public health skills. A better skilled workforce will be a net positive for society. It will ultimately help reduce pressure on the healthcare system as the wider workforce has a key role to play in prevention. 

Policymakers have nothing to lose and everything to gain when it comes to investing in public health. Doing nothing to address the UK’s declining health is going to cost us much more in the long term. 

William Roberts is the CEO of the Royal Society for Public Health.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not those of Bright Blue.

[Image: Studio Romantic]