The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has warned that disjointed policies and drops in public health spending are damaging the long-term health of the nation in ‘State of Child Health: One year on’.
England was the only country with a worsened performance against one of its recommendations - to freeze public health cuts.
The report said the greatest area for concern was the deepening public health cuts which are ‘disproportionately affecting children’s services’, quoting statistics which show public health spending by English councils is more than 5 per cent lower in 2017-18 than in 2013-14.
The scorecards suggest England is lagging behind Scotland and Wales in enacting policies to improve child health, with no improvement in several fundamental areas, including:
- no plans for an overarching child health strategy
- no junk food advertising ban
- no way of measuring UK breastfeeding prevalence
- no increased investment in child health research
The report does describe some progress in England, however, including:
- the launch of a digital child health strategy
- the publication of a new tobacco control plan
- the initiation of some specialist service reviews in paediatrics and the implementation of the sugar tax
Professor Neena Modi, president of the RCPCH, said, ‘The science exists for all to see; invest in the health of children and make a huge difference to their health in later life and hence to their economic productivity. For example, four-fifths of obese children will remain obese as adults and this will result in them losing between 10-20 years of healthy life.
‘That’s a very frightening statistic and something that Government must get to grips with. It’s no wonder the NHS is burgeoning under the weight of ill health. This is time for a long vision for the sake of the nation’s wellbeing and prosperity yet the focus remains short-term and ineffective.’
Professor Russell Viner, RCPCH officer for health promotion, added, ‘Child health isn’t being given the political attention it deserves in Westminster, which is disappointing given the real commitments from the Scottish and Welsh Governments. While policies such as the soft drinks industry levy and new tobacco control plan are to be applauded, the approach is piecemeal.
‘Getting it right in childhood means setting up future generation for a lifetime of better health. Investing in children is an investment in the entire population.’
The RCPCH is calling for each national government to commit to a ‘child health in all policies’ approach, requiring the impact on child health to be considered whenever any legislation is passed. The RCPCH also wants to see a cross-party committee established to develop a child health strategy.
Professor Modi added, ‘We need parity of esteem between acute and preventive healthcare. It is no good only throwing money at treating established problems; there must be far better investment in prevention, which will reap immeasurable long term benefits. This means much bolder public health policies and a reversal of the current destructive cuts to preventive services.’
In Scotland, the report praises progress in areas such as:
- the passing of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act with defined poverty reduction targets
- a new Mental Health Strategy including a commitment to improve transition to adult services
- an announcement of plans to expand the number of health visitors by an additional 500 by the end of 2018 through the full roll-out of the Family Nurse Partnership programme
- a commitment from Scottish Government to ensure specialist breastfeeding advice and support is delivered to women
The report also recognises progress made by Wales in areas including:
- the Public Health (Wales) Act has been enacted which includes extending bans on smoking in public places to school grounds, playgrounds and NHS grounds.
- a new state of the art facility in Cardiff has opened to expand capacity for child health research
Councillor Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) community wellbeing board, commented, ‘The report highlights that there are still no national plans to ban junk food advertising. The LGA has long called for fundamental reforms to tackle childhood obesity, such as for councils to be given a say in how and where the soft drinks levy is spent, better labelling on food and drink products, and for councils to be given powers to ban junk food advertising near schools.
‘Public health services play a vital role in improving the health of children, young people and adults, reducing the need for treatment later down the line and easing the pressure on the NHS.
‘Unless this is properly funded, it will put services at risk which are vital in supporting the health and development of babies, children and families.’
A government spokesperson said, ‘There is always more to do, but we have world-leading plans in place to safeguard child health by combatting obesity, improving mental health and vaccinating against some of the world's deadliest diseases.
‘In the past year, both teen pregnancy and child mortality have fallen to all-time lows, and our soft drinks levy is already funding additional breakfast clubs and sports.’