Green paper blues: Turning the government’s health paper from a whimper to a bang

August 2, 2019  |  Sasha Miller

You can almost hear the clatter of fingers drumming away on keyboards in frustration.

Last week the government launched their long-awaited green paper on preventative health, Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s. The paper sets out plans to move us from thinking about life span to health span: the number of years we can expect to live healthy, independent lives.

The proposals cover a wide range of ideas, from artificial intelligence and genomics to teeth brushing and sleep. Interested parties now have until October 14 to submit their views on the proposals. And they are likely to have a lot to say.

The controversy started even before a word had been read. Why had it been published so quietly, without an accompanying press release or any media fanfare? Why was it published in the evening, less than 24 hours before the announcement of a new Conservative leader? Was this a deliberate attempt to bury it?

If it was, it was relatively successful. With all the hoo-hah going on at Westminster, the green paper got scant attention in the national press. The coverage it did get mostly focussed on the way the green paper had been published, or gleeful reports of how Boris Johnson had already quashed the proposed “milkshake tax” before the ink on the suggestion had even dried.

Nevertheless, within health and social care professions, statements were being prepared. Though most spokespeople found something in the green paper to endorse, there was always a “however” hovering just around the corner.

For David Buck, Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund, the paper “is a missed opportunity to build on the success of the sugar tax by taking a bolder approach to using tax and regulation to improve public health”.

Helen Donovan, Professional Lead for Public Health at the Royal College of Nurses, was concerned that the paper didn’t say anything about the “cuts to the public health grant which local authorities rely on to deliver essential preventative services such as sexual health and smoking cessation services”.

Meanwhile, at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) pointed out that, despite the paper talking about services working together, there was “only a single mention of social work within the paper”. The BASW is right, but if we’re going to play that game, nurses also only get one name check and doctors a measly three.

In the Thrive offices our verdict was equally mixed. Advancing our health: prevention in the 2020s painted a hugely inspiring picture of the future and one that is completely aligned with our values as a company.

For example, the green paper states: “In the 2020s, people will not be passive recipients of care. They will be co-creators of their own health. The challenge is to equip them with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to help themselves.”

Yes! We totally agree. But there was little detail on how this transformation is going to happen beyond a few mentions of wearable devices and access to data. All very well but we know that wearables alone don’t change health outcomes because tracking data is one thing, but presenting it in a way people find clear, motivating, and actionable is another.

Like the professional organisations, charities and campaigners, we’re working on our response to the green paper. There are 20 questions in all, mostly looking for ideas and examples of how the green paper’s ambitions can be realised. We’ll be using our experience supporting millions of parents of under 5s to inform our response to the questions about infant and child feeding. And our work with universities to nurture student wellbeing as an example of using technology to prevent mental ill-health and promote good mental health and wellbeing.

When Andrew Goddard, President of the Royal College of Physicians, first read the green paper he was disappointed, but then vowed to join with colleagues to “turn this whimper into a bang”.

Stand by people. It’s going to get noisy out there.