Matt Hancock has triggered a row after urging people to take greater responsibility for their own health to tackle the rising toll of illness from diseases such as cancer and obesity.
In a speech on Monday the health and social care secretary will call for a big increase in people making healthier lifestyle choices, such as reducing the amount of alcohol and junk food they consume.
Outlining plans for a major push to prevent ill health, Hancock will say: “Prevention is also about ensuring that people take greater responsibility for managing their own health. It’s about people choosing to look after themselves better, staying active and stopping smoking. Making better choices by limiting alcohol, sugar, salt and fat.”
He will insist that his focus on people’s individual responsibilities as patients “isn’t about penalising people” and instead involves helping them make better choices, some of which involve “tough decisions”.
However, one leading public health doctor said Hancock’s focus on personal responsibility was “naive” and an example of “victim blaming”.
Simon Capewell, a professor of public health and policy at Liverpool University, said the minister was right to emphasise the need for effective prevention of epidemics such as obesity, diabetes and dementia.
But he added: “We must recognise the huge power of our lived environment, and avoid naively just focusing on ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘individual choices’. People do not ‘choose’ obesity or diabetes or cancer. They have just been overwhelmed by a toxic environment.”
The big drop in the last decade in the number of Britons who smoke showed that firm, consistent government action was the best way to boost public health, Capewell said.
He added: “Mr Hancock can celebrate previous health successes with tobacco control. That success was built not on victim blaming, but on strong tax and regulation policies to reduce the ‘three As’ of tobacco affordability, availability and acceptability.”
Ministers need to take similarly tough action now against “the production of the commodities which harm people’s ill health, including junk food, cheap booze and fixed-odds betting terminals,” he said.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, criticised Hancock’s remarks. “From telling people to stand up in meetings to now lecturing people about their habits, while cutting £1bn from health services, isn’t a serious plan for improving the health of the nation,” he said.
Hancock is not expected to announce any major measures to aid health prevention. But he will say that much more of the NHS budget needed to be spent on prevention. “In the UK, we are spending £97bn of public money on treating disease and only £8bn preventing it across the UK. You don’t have to be an economist to see those numbers don’t stack up,” he will say at the annual meeting in London of the International Association of National Public Health Institutes.
Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, urged Hancock to reduce the toll of lifestyle-related disease by introducing minimum unit pricing of alcohol in England as well as much tougher legislation to tackle air pollution.
Several health organisations highlighted that local councils in England have had to cut their public health budgets in recent years, and will do so again next year, because Hancock’s department of health and social care has reduced their grants to divert more money to frontline NHS services.
Helen Donovan, professional lead for public health at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “But Matt Hancock must realise his plans will start at a disadvantage as local authorities struggle with planned cuts to public health budgets of almost 4% per year until 2021. Disadvantaged areas emerge worse off without these vital services, with life expectancy and the poorest bearing the brunt of underinvestment in public health.”
Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation thinktank, said its research had found that £700m had been cut from public health grants since 2014-15.