Key points

  • Good health is vital for prosperity, allowing people to play an active role at work and in their communities. The inextricable link between health and wealth has been made more prominent by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare the difference between those with the best and the worst health in the UK.
  • Improving health requires action to be taken by the whole of government, not just the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS. To make the most of this opportunity, government needs to set out a national framework for action.  
  • A cross-government strategy is needed to improve health, led by the Prime Minister, including targets, funding and evaluation metrics. This will require strong political buy-in and mechanisms to drive efforts across the whole of government – such as a binding target to reduce health inequalities and a commitment to make improving health an explicit objective of every major policy decision.  

The government has made several promising commitments that signal a move towards a more joined-up approach to improving health and health equity. This briefing recognises that concerted, holistic action needs to be taken to create the conditions that improve health. It sets out the action that central government needs to take to act purposefully as a system, rather than as a series of individual actors. The necessary actions fall into two broad areas, with progress measured through strong accountability measures:  

  • placing improving health and health equity at the heart of government’s agenda 
  • government creating a framework that supports wider activity to improve health. 

Government also needs to create the conditions for others to play their part in improving health. Local authorities have a central role in improving health but have experienced cuts to baseline budgets in recent years. Sufficient and sustainable funding is needed but also flexibility in how funding can be spent, multi-year settlements and further devolution to support joined-up, place-based working. 

In this briefing, we outline a number of evidence-based policies that can be taken to improve health across the whole of the UK. 

Cite this publication

Merrifield K, Nightingale G. A whole-government approach to improving health. The Health Foundation; 2021 (

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