Key points

  • The pandemic has shown that good health is necessary for a flourishing society. Effective recovery will require the government to prioritise creating the right conditions for people to lead healthy lives, using the full range of levers at its disposal. 

  • Following the government’s decision to abolish Public Health England (PHE), the government needs to create a public health system fit to meet the challenges ahead. The new system needs the right strategy, structures and resources: 

    • The strategy for creating an effective new public health system should include a cross-government commitment to level up health outcomes and enable people to live longer in good health. 

    • The structures needed include an independent body to report to parliament on the nation’s health, a national function supporting the public health system, and strengthened local and regional infrastructure. 

    • The resources needed include, as a minimum, £1bn to restore public health funding to its 2015 levels and a further £2.5bn needed to level up public health across the country. Government should also commit to ensuring that public health funding keeps pace NHS with funding increases in future. 

  • The transition to a new public health system needs to be managed carefully, to ensure that the reorganisation does not disrupt the pandemic response or lead to a weaker system in future. 

The UK government has committed to improving the nation’s health. It has set itself a ‘grand challenge’ of enabling people to live an extra 5 years of healthy life by 2035 while narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest. Improving health should also be an important part of the government’s commitment to ‘level up’ the poorest parts of the country.  

These are huge challenges, particularly at a time when the nation’s health and economy are being buffeted by coronavirus (COVID-19). In light of the impact of the pandemic and the government’s decision to abolish Public Health England (PHE), this briefing explores what needs to be put in place to make progress on the government’s commitments to improve the nation’s health. We begin by looking at the role government can play in improving the nation’s health before examining how England might transition to a new public health system and what the main priorities for any new system should be. 

Alongside this briefing, we are publishing new analysis that finds that if everyone in the country enjoyed the same health as those in the most affluent half of areas, 77,000 premature deaths (among those younger than age 75) could have been averted in 2018 – and this figure is bound to be higher during the pandemic.

Cite this publication

Elwell-Sutton T, Finch D, Jenkins D, Ranmal R, Marshall L, McNeill O, Briggs A, Cameron G, Malhotra A M. Improving the nation’s health: the future of the public health system in England; 2020 (

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