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Is Labour’s Child Health Action Plan fit for purpose?

Public health experts discuss Keir Starmer’s proposals to improve children’s health and well-being.

By Sarah Dawood

This month, Labour released a Child Health Action Plan, which lays out how it would improve young people’s health and well-being if the party wins the next general election. The plan has seven proposals centred around cutting NHS waiting lists, improving mental health support, widening access to NHS dentistry, tackling smoking and vaping, banning junk food advertising aimed at children, introducing free healthy breakfast clubs in every primary school, and protecting children from infectious diseases through vaccination programmes. All these interventions would be funded through abolishing three things: the non-dom tax status, tax breaks for private schools, and tax loopholes for private equity fund managers.

Spotlight asked experts what they thought about Labour’s proposals, and whether the plan goes far enough.

Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology at University College London (UCL) and director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity

Labour is right to highlight the poor state of our children’s health and prioritise it for action. The steps they propose are all welcome and much needed. We, at the Institute of Health Equity, point to the evidence that poor health arises from poor social policies that, among other things, have increased child poverty and substandard, cold homes. We urge the government to put equity of health and well-being at the heart of all government policy. Action on the social determinants of health will improve health and reduce health inequalities in children and throughout life.

Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

The UK has some of the worst child health outcomes in Europe, and child health inequalities continue to widen. We see this dedicated Child Health Action Plan as an important first step in starting to deliver changes that will make the UK a better place to grow up. It includes policies that paediatricians have repeatedly called for, such as a focus on paediatric waiting times and policies to prevent children getting sick in the first place.

However, if we are to make real change for children’s health, then this is just the start of the conversation. We need a detailed strategy that looks at children holistically and ensures government takes a child health approach in all policies, whether that be transport, local government, education or elsewhere. Importantly, it must be clear on how the child health workforce will be supported to deliver.

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We must also be clear that poverty is a key driver of ill health. Children who grow up in poverty experience more ill-health in childhood, and are likely to lead shorter, less healthy, and less productive lives as they reach adulthood. There are currently 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK today, and without child poverty reduction being a clear priority, then I fear this action plan could fall short of its objectives.

The future well-being and prosperity of our nation depends on building a solid foundation of health for our next generation, and so investing in a healthy and happy childhood for all has never been more important. We need bold action, and this starts with political acknowledgement and the will from all parties ahead of the coming general election.

Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England

As children’s commissioner, I have been all over England speaking to children and young people over the past few months as part of my Big Ambition survey, asking them what they want politicians to do ahead of the next election. I hear how ambitious and excited they are for their futures, but I also hear about some issues they really need help with. One of those issues is around health and mental health.

I have been really shocked to see worsening mental health statistics from the NHS. The latest statistics show that one in five children and young people in England is now thought to have a mental health issue. We are seeing this crisis playing out in all kinds of ways, for example with 1.8 million children persistently absent from school.

We must get to grips with these issues, or we risk failing a generation – which is why I was pleased to see Labour’s Child Health Action Plan. I welcome the focus on cutting waiting lists for children, tackling the crisis in children’s mental health, cracking down on smoking and vaping, and supporting children to eat and live healthily.

I believe that these are the right priorities. These are the issues that children tell me they are concerned about, and in particular how they need support when it comes to mental health issues, vaping and the cost of living, amongst other things.

When I get the results from my survey, which has already had more than 360,000 responses, I will be calling for some key outcomes that I want for every child: namely that they are safe, healthy, happy, learning and engaged in their community.

To achieve this, every child needs to have access to high-quality mental health support in their school and local community. I also want to see disabled children, those with special educational needs, and neurodiverse children receive excellent, joined-up healthcare, social care and education. This is what young people need and deserve and we must all work together to make it a reality.

Greg Fell, president, Association of Directors of Public Health

Children have a right to good health and the benefits it brings. To make that happen we need to address the root causes of issues, as well as their symptoms.

Children’s physical and mental well-being is shaped significantly by their environment – that means their homes, schools, towns, what they are exposed to and how easy it is to access resources that benefit health.

Governments therefore need to consider the impact on health with every policy decision, regardless of whether it is labelled a “health” issue. Labour’s commitment to creating a society where good health is the norm is very welcome and the promise of tougher restrictions on harmful products is a definite step in the right direction – only by shifting towards protection, prevention and early intervention can we hope to have happy and healthy children.

However, it is important to remember that treatment, while incredibly important, isn’t a magic bullet. To tackle issues like mental health, oral health and obesity, we need a whole family approach where everyone involved at every level is trained in preventing, identifying and supporting issues before treatment is ever needed.

Here, local expertise is critical, and whoever the next government is must ensure national strategies are given sufficient funding at a local level to empower those who make a difference, so that giving children the best start in life really is a priority.

[See also: Parkrun founder: “It’s everybody’s right to be active and healthy”]

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