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Duncan Selbie's Friday message - 26 January 2018

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Dear everyone

For treating problems such as pain, anxiety and depression, prescription drugs are vital and benefit many people. It is when patients encounter problems such as dependence and withdrawal symptoms that the medicines themselves become a problem. On Wednesday Health Minister Steve Brine commissioned PHE to undertake a review of the evidence on prescribed medicines that may cause dependence and withdrawal symptoms, how they may be prevented and the best way to help patients who report these. This will include pain medication as well as anti-depressants, for which prescriptions have doubled to around 65 million over the past 10 years, and we will publish our findings on the scale of the problem, the harms caused and how we should respond in early 2019.

Many people enjoy an alcoholic drink socially or to unwind and for the most part this does not cause problems. However, each year, alcohol-related harm causes 16,000 alcohol specific deaths, is responsible for 16% of working years of life lost, and over one million hospital admissions. In England just over 4% of the population consume nearly a third of the alcohol sold and those most at risk are drinking cheap, high strength alcohol such as white cider. This week Rosanna O’Connor, our Director of Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Policy, gave evidence to the Health Select Committee on minimum unit pricing for alcohol. Our independent evidence review, published in The Lancet in December 2016, supported minimum unit pricing as the most effective way of addressing the problem of the cheapest and strongest alcohol being favoured by the young and the heaviest drinkers. This is a highly targeted policy that will affect a small group of people, creating great health gains. This is not about making alcohol less accessible to the majority, and it will make no difference to drinks sold in pubs and clubs. We look forward to hearing the conclusions of the committee and providing any further evidence or support they may require.

Since April 2013, over 12.7 million people have been offered an NHS Health Check, and 6.1 million people have received one. The NHS Health Check programme provides a cornerstone for the prevention of cardiovascular disease which is responsible for 1 in 4 premature deaths in the UK and places a considerable strain on individuals, families and our health and care system. The programme has not only reached large numbers of people but an evidence synthesis completed by Cambridge University showed that people from our most disadvantaged communities are more likely to have received a check. This is a major achievement and I want to congratulate those commissioning and locally delivering the programme. Of course there is still much to be done, in particular reducing the variation across the country because depending on where you live, you are more or less likely to be offered and take up a NHS Health Check. The role of the NHS Health Check in tackling CVD is the focus of our latest edition of Health Matters, which we launched on Wednesday and you can see the full edition here and learn more in our blog.

Flu places a double strain on the NHS; when it is circulating we see more patients and have fewer staff to treat them. Yesterday the flu vaccine uptake figures were published showing around 1.5m more people vaccinated this flu season. Uptake rates have increased or stabilised across all target groups. This progress is great to see though the question is, as ever, what are the barriers stopping these being even higher? Healthcare staff in particular are offered the vaccination as standard, free of charge to them. This helps protect their patients, particularly those in vulnerable groups and it also helps protect them and reduce overall sickness absence at a time of high pressure on everyone. We will now start to consider next winter and how we will drive up flu vaccinations even further, working with NHS England and NHS Improvement, Trusts and schools to ensure these are as accessible as possible to everyone.

And finally, our PHE Finance and Commercial Team has been shortlisted as Finance Team of the Year – National Bodies by Public Finance magazine. This is in recognition that they run a tight ship, are stacked with talent and have a relentless focus on taxpayer value. This was also recognised by the independent government internal audit agency which gave PHE the top assurance banding for our financial planning.

With best wishes,




Friday messages from 2012-2016 are available on GOV.UK

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