Directors of public health continue to play a critical role in responding to and recovery from COVID-19. It is vital that we learn from their experiences in order to strengthen the role of public health and directors of public health for the longer term.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the public health system in England had undergone a major reform and, since 2014/15, has faced significant financial challenges. The government made emergency funding available to support public health teams to tackle the virus. However, the short-term nature of the funding leaves uncertainty around longstanding public challenges in the public health system.  

Supported by the Health Foundation, the King’s Fund undertook a project to explore the local response to and recovery from COVID-19. Our research highlights two key aspects to directors of public health’s involvement in responding to COVID-19: their formal role in the local public health system and their role in engaging local communities, facilitating vital social support, while remaining central to the broader response.  

Directors of public health have encountered various challenges during the crisis. From workforce shortages within public health teams to central government not engaging properly regarding major elements of the response to COVID-19 – most notably, the national testing strategy and the roll-out of NHS Test and Trace. Future funding will need to meet the scale of the public health challenge ahead if not to hamper opportunities for a healthier, more resilient communities in recovery.

This year, the government set out reforms to the public health system in England. Directors of public health have a key role to play in the implementation and ongoing development of integrated care systems and in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and the Office for Health Promotion.

Further reading

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COVID-19 and the public health system

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COVID-19 impact inquiry

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