Friday 27 January 2023

Public Health at a crossroads again: meeting the challenge of a reformed system in England

Posted by David Hunter, Newcastle University, Peter Littlejohns, King’s College London, and Albert Weale, University College London

With health policy understandably preoccupied with the pressures on, and changes occurring in, the NHS arising from the impact of COVID-19, implementation of the Health and Care Act 2022, and various strikes among the workforce, it is imperative not to overlook the public health system reforms in England.

Public Health England’s (PHE) sudden demise in August 2020 followed mounting criticisms of its performance during the early stages of the pandemic and general unpreparedness.1 Rather than consider how PHE might be reformed, the government rushed to replace it with two new bodies: UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID). Like PHE, the UKHSA is an executive agency with close ministerial oversight while still permitting ‘independence in the delivery of policy advice’. It will act as a ‘system leader’ for health security with responsibility for pandemic preparedness and external threats across the UK while bearing in mind that health is a devolved responsibility.

PHE’s remaining functions in respect of the wider public health, including health improvement and population health, lie with OHID. Located within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and jointly accountable to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Chief Medical Officer for England, it enjoys even less independence than the UKHSA. Building on the work of PHE, OHID’s priorities include tackling obesity, improving mental health, promoting physical activity and other population health issues, notably inequalities.

There is merit in taking stock to identify any lessons which might be gleaned from the mixed life of PHE and whether the new bodies offer hope to do things better.2

Learning the lessons

The findings from a research project to explore the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of PHE may assist with the learning process.3 Five broad underlying issues were identified in the research which contributed to PHE’s demise.
  • PHE did not possess the capacity to undertake a testing regime
     of the size and complexity required by the pandemic
    Severe funding cuts in public health spending, nationally and locally, since 2010 meant that PHE functioned with reduced capacity when the pandemic struck
  • PHE did not possess the capacity to undertake a testing regime of the size and complexity required by the pandemic, the absence of which was the basis of the case against the organisation
  • The governance of PHE as an executive agency meant it lacked independence
  • While decisions made by PHE at the start of the pandemic were later considered mistakes (and judged outside the law by a judicial review) at the time there was little information about the nature and possible effects of the virus and limited capacity in the health system which required tough prioritisation decision to be made
  • The sudden closure of PHE without any consultation was widely reported to be due to blame-avoidance behaviour on the part of key actors, principally Dominic Cummins (as former Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson) and Matt Hancock (as former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care). There was also a view that the decision was based on policy favouring use of the private sector and contracting out functions like test and trace.
Key lessons from these findings centre on two major areas of concern: the respective remits of the new bodies, and their governance.


The respective remits of UKHSA and OHID need to be clearer and more transparent if the risk of fragmentation is to be avoided. A welcome feature of PHE was its attempt to bring together the key public health functions that had previously operated in separate silos. As things now stand, separating communicable diseases (CDs) from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is a retrograde move since, as the pandemic highlighted in stark terms, close links exist between them when it comes to those groups and communities which suffered most in terms of illness and death. A syndemic understanding of diseases and their underlying social factors is pivotal in preventing disease in the future and avoiding fragmentation.4


Governance of the new public health bodies requires careful attention. As an executive agency, PHE was criticised for its lack of independence from government which restricted its ability to ‘speak truth to power’. Given UKHSA enjoys the same status, it remains unclear how it intends to avoid a similar fate. The problem is a deep-seated and pervasive one within government. The idea that OHID being housed in the DHSC will allow it to exercise greater influence and have a closer collaboration with ministers could be a good move, or, more likely if history is any guide, it may be overly optimistic. There is a risk that OHID may disappear into Whitehall and become invisible, lacking even the limited degree of independence PHE had. To succeed, OHID has to be visible and have allies inside government.

A further issue concerning the governance and working style of both agencies, especially OHID, centres on their ability to operate effectively across government. Public health comprises numerous ‘wicked issues’, that is, multi-faceted problems that are complex and for which there are no simple or single solutions. Confronting them will be especially challenging for a government which, for all its rhetoric about ‘levelling up‘, remains topic- and department-focused, operating in silos rather than concerned with cross-government issues.5

OHID has a steep hill to climb if it wants to lead a transformational agenda across the wider determinants of health which demands a whole-of-government approach. The hill just got steeper following government delays in tackling child obesity and its failure to implement a national food strategy. In keeping with the prevailing political ethos, there is a renewed focus on individual behaviour change and lifestyle choices rather than tackling the influence on health of commercial interests via taxation and regulation.6,7 If significant inroads into the population health agenda are to be made, then confronting powerful vested interests in, and lobbying from, the food and drinks industry and their ’friends’ in government engaged in what has been termed ’institutional corruption’ cannot be avoided.8 Whether OHID has either the backing from government or competences for such a struggle remains doubtful in the extreme.


Public health once again finds itself at a crossroads. It can either continue to ‘muddle through’ with a broken political and public policy system that is not fit for purpose.9 Or there is an opportunity to construct a strong and confident public health system that is well-placed to confront the challenges facing it. The aftermath of COVID-19 should make the choice of options self-evident. However, as things stand, it is unlikely that the UK’s broken political system with its focus on short-term fixes is up to the challenge. Without major systemic change aimed at overhauling the UK’s political system, a risk of further deterioration in the state of the public’s health may be unavoidable.

  1. Calvert J, Arbuthnott G. Failures of state: the inside story of Britain’s battle with coronavirus. London: Mudlark, 2021.
  2. Vize R. Controversial from creation to disbanding, via e-cigarettes and alcohol: an obituary of Public Health England. British Medical Journal 2020; 371:m4476
  3. Littlejohns P, Khatun T, Knight A, Hunter DJ, Markham S, Coultas C, Kelly MP, Ahuja S. (2022) Lessons from the demise of Public Health England: where next for UK public health? London: NIHR ARC South London.
  4. Horton R. Offline: COVID-19 is not a pandemic. The Lancet 2020; 396: 874.
  5. Pope T, Shearer E, Hourston P. What levelling up policies will drive economic change? The need for a long-term focus on skills and cities. London: Institute for Government, 2022.
  6. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Junk food: obesity strategy falling apart, Jamie Oliver says. 15 May 2022
  7. Ralston R, Smith K, O’Connor CH, Brown A. Levelling up the UK: is the government serious about reducing regional inequalities in health? British Medical Journal 2022; 377:e070589
  8. Draca M. Institutional corruption? The revolving door in American and British politics. SMF-CAGE global perspectives series: 1. 2014.
  9. Ricketts P. Hard choices: the making and unmaking of global Britain. London: Atlantic Books, 2022.

David J Hunter, Emeritus Professor of Health Policy and Management, Population Health Sciences Institute, Newcastle University

Peter Littlejohns, Emeritus Professor of Public Health, Centre for Implementation Science, Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences, King’s College London

Albert Weale, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Pubic Policy, University College 

The views and opinions expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Newcastle University, King’s College London, University College London, or Fuse, the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health.

Friday 6 January 2023

What’s really going on when a child is ‘overtired’ – and how to help them have a silent night in the New Year

Posted by Helen Ball, Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Durham Infancy & Sleep Centre (DISC), and Fuse Associate at Durham University

Anyone who’s cared for a young child will recognise the signs. They’ve had too little sleep or missed a nap, they’re cranky, tearful, and stroppy, and they can’t or won’t fall asleep. They are “overtired”. But is such a thing really possible – to be more tired than tired?

What we tend to call overtiredness happens when an emotional state, such as anxiety, distress or fear, blocks our ability to go to sleep even when we’re really tired. This is a survival response that helps us to stay awake when in danger, no matter how tired we are. It suggests overtiredness can be reframed to help us better respond to our child’s needs when it happens.

At the end of the day, the feeling we have of needing to sleep is called sleep pressure. The longer we stay awake the more sleep pressure rises. Typically, the higher it gets, the easier it is to fall asleep. If we stay awake for long enough, eventually we’ll fall asleep even if we are trying not to.

The sensation of sleep pressure is caused by the build-up of chemicals (called adenosines) in the brain. These are proteins that are removed from our brains while we sleep, and build up again while we are awake.

For adults, this process takes about 14-16 hours. When we delay sleep past this point the build-up of adenosines cannot go on unchecked. At some point, eventually, we must sleep.

Babies’ sleep pressure builds up more quickly than adults. Young babies often fall asleep after being awake for an hour or two. As children get older, sleep pressure builds more slowly. But it takes several years until a child is able to stay awake all day.

What stops us sleeping?

To fall asleep we must be calm, relaxed and able to switch off our brains so that the build up of sleep pressure can tip us into sleep. When something blocks the action of sleep pressure, such as fear, pain or racing thoughts, we may struggle with sleeplessness.

In the same way, sleep happens more easily for a baby or child when sleep pressure is high, they are in a calm relaxed state, and nothing is preventing sleep onset. But sometimes babies and children need help to become calm before sleep pressure can kick in and they can nod off.

When a baby or young child’s sleep pressure is high and the need to sleep is strong, but they are emotionally unable to calm themselves, or they are in a situation where they cannot relax – where there is noise, lights, or activity – we may label them as overtired. Emotional exhaustion, which is a form of stress, prevents both children and adults from sleeping and makes them cranky.

Some responses to overtiredness are heavy-handed. Ordering a child to their room, putting them to bed in the face of distress or punishing them for not falling asleep when told to do so will dial up the child further and push sleep further from reach. After all, none of us can fall asleep on command.

Helping babies to sleep

In this situation, we must remember that babies and young children need our help to manage their emotions. It is our job as parents to help them become calm, dial down, and relax in preparation for sleep.

We can do this in many ways. Physical contact such as cuddling, rocking, stroking or patting works for most children, although it must be remembered that some neurodivergent children can find touch irritating rather than calming.

Non-contact methods also work. The presence of a relaxed slow breathing adult can calm a child, as can listening to gentle talking, singing and humming. In the Czech Republic, there is a specific word for lying with and helping a child to relax so they can fall asleep: uspávání.

There is no name in English for the process of helping a child relax so that sleep pressure can tip them into slumber, so we often don’t discuss or acknowledge it. We can use it, though. And we can understand that what we have named “overtiredness” is the conflict between sleep pressure being high and something blocking the effect of that sleep pressure.

In this situation actively removing the blockage – fear, pain, anxiety – by helping babies and children to become calm is the quickest way to help them fall asleep.

Next time your baby is having a meltdown at bedtime, or your child is throwing a tantrum at the end of the day, hug them, cuddle them, talk gently to them and calm them. Let sleep pressure do its thing, and they’ll be snoozing in no time.

The Durham Infancy & Sleep Centre (formerly the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab) is a research centre of the Department of Anthropology. It is the home for a group of researchers examining various aspects of infant and child sleep and parenting behaviour since 1995. Its work with more than 5,000 parents and babies during the last 20+ years has substantially increased parents' understanding of babies' sleep, how best to care for babies during the night, and how best to keep them safe when asleep. 

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.