Health protection

Health protection is the branch of public health concerned with policies and practice to improve the prevention and control of infectious diseases and other environmental threats to the health of the population.

The aim of the new arrangements in place in England since 1st April 2013 is for an integrated, streamlined health protection system that delivers effective protection for the population from health threats, based on:

  • a clear line of sight from the top of government to the frontline;
  • clear accountabilities;
  • collaboration and coordination at every level of the system; and
  • robust, locally sensitive arrangements for planning and response.

A concise summary of the new public health system for England is contained in the Department of Health (DH) document - The new public health system: summary.

The Secretary of State for Health has the overarching duty to protect the health of the population, a duty which will generally be discharged by Public Health England (PHE).

The Health Protection Directorate of PHE is described in DH Factsheet - Structure of Public Health England, Pages 7-8 

The PHE Health Protection Directorate is responsible for ensuring that there are effective arrangements in place nationally and locally for preparing, planning and responding to health protection concerns and emergencies, including the future impact of climate change. PHE provides specialist health protection, epidemiology and microbiology services across England.

The role of the local authority Director of Public Health (DPH) is set out in DH publication Directors of Public Health in Local Government - Roles, Responsibilities and Context. It states that the DPH ‘should be the person who elected members and senior officers look to for leadership, expertise and advice on a range of issues, from outbreaks of disease and emergency preparedness through to improving local people’s health and access to health services’.

How the system works locally

The DPH is responsible for the local authority’s contribution to health protection matters, including the local authority’s roles in planning for, and responding to incidents that present a threat to the public’s health.

PHE has a responsibility to deliver the specialist health protection response, including the response to incidents and outbreaks, through the PHE Centres which take on the functions of the former Health Protection Units.

These roles are complementary and both are needed to ensure an effective response.

In practice this means that there must be ongoing communication between the PHE Centre and DPH regarding emerging health protection issues to agree the nature of response required and who does what in any individual situation. The local health protection system therefore involves the delivery of specialist health protection functions by PHE, and local authorities providing local leadership for health. In practice, local authorities and PHE will work closely together as a single public health system.

This joint working with clarity of responsibilities between them is crucial for safe delivery of health protection. Practical guidance is provided in the publication Protecting the health of the local population: the new health protection duty of local authorities under the Local Authorities (Public Health Functions and Entry to Premises by Local Healthwatch Representatives) Regulations 2013. 

There is also additional guidance on planning for health emergencies.

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