The role and expertise of occupational health professionals is going to become “ever-more prominent” as the UK, and UK employers, wrestle with responding to coronavirus Covid-19, a leading civil servant has said.
Dr Bola Akinwale, head of strategic research and analysis at the government’s Joint Work and Health Unit, told delegates to the Health and Wellbeing @ Work show in Birmingham that the outbreak of the virus had highlighted the importance of examining how access to quality OH advice can be improved in the future.
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The role of, and access to, occupational health was a key strand of last year’s consultation document Health is Everyone’s Business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss, and could be at the forefront of a Green Paper expected by the summer.
The impact of the virus was visible in Birmingham by the fact Dr Akinwale was herself standing in for deputy chief medical officer Professor Jenny Harries, who had been unable to leave London because of the demands of responding to the pandemic.
Explaining some of the government’s priorities around improving workplace health and the various pilots underway, Dr Akinwale said: “One of the things that government can do, I think, is set the right conditions for all of us to do the right thing in relation to health and work.”
The consultation had been focused on examining ways to reduce ill health-related job loss and role of employers in that, she highlighted. Strengthening the role of Statutory Sick Pay, and especially whether the current lower earnings limit should be removed, had been another key topic within this.
“In the debate about corona that has been a really topical issue; I think lots of people have views about whether we should or shouldn’t do that,” Dr Akinwale added.
How to reinvigorate OH market
When it came to improving access to quality OH advice, Dr Akinwale said: “Again with corona, I think the role of experts and occupational health advisers becomes ever-more prominent. We did a lot of work with stakeholders over the period to try to think about what would it take to reinvigorate the market for occupational health.
“We know that there is a gradient in access to occupational health. So, people who are working in smaller firms or smaller businesses are much less likely to have access to occupational health provision to those working in larger firms.
“One question is how can we smooth out that access? How can we reinvigorate the market so that there is both the capacity and the quality of provision that means that employers want to buy it and understand what they’re getting?” she added.
While much of the detail is of course still to come within the Green Paper, Dr Akinwale emphasised that the consultation document was a good starting point for OH practitioners to get a sense of the government’s thinking in this area.
“It is worth having a look at that consultation to see what direction the government is heading in, particularly,” she said.