The health of the population is one of any nation’s biggest assets. Good health is vital for prosperity, allowing people to play an active role at work and in their communities. The inextricable link between health and wealth has been made more prominent by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare the consequences of underlying poor health in the UK. Even before the pandemic, poor underlying health placed limitations on people’s daily lives, and their ability to work and contribute to the economy. As part of the nation’s recovery, a new cross-government focus is needed to address these longstanding issues.

All sectors of society have a role in improving health. The voluntary and community sector provide vital social fabric; businesses as employers and producers of goods and wealth, and local government as convenors and leaders in shaping local places. While there has been steady action from some across these different sectors, the country entered the pandemic with life expectancy improvements stalling and inequalities widening.

Sustained success in improving health requires government to reorient itself to make progress over the long term. It is time to acknowledge that real progress will not be seen for years and will only be achieved if there is a consistent focus on improving health and health equity. Attention should be paid to investing in all four capitals: financial, human, social and natural. As seen with the net zero target, a long-term focus can be effective to galvanise society around a clear, ambitious outcome. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the impetus to do the same for health improvement.

Much attention is paid to what government needs to be – the spending, regulation and policies that can improve health. Arguably the lack of traction on this longstanding agenda stems from insufficient focus being given to how government organises itself to create the conditions for others to improve health and health equity.

This briefing recognises that concerted, holistic action needs to be taken to create the conditions that improve health. It sets out the action that central government needs to take to act purposefully as a system, rather than as a series of individual actors.

We draw on desk research and consultations with members of the public and stakeholders across a range of sectors, carried out by the Health Foundation, and a roundtable with senior figures from government and the third sector, convened by the Institute for Government.

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