Occupational health practitioners are being urged to lobby their MPs ahead of October’s comprehensive spending review to try to encourage the Treasury to unlock extra investment in the profession and workplace health.
The call by SOM, the Society of Occupational Medicine, came at a summit held this week on the need for universal access to occupational health within the UK.
The comprehensive spending review is due to take place on 27 October, along with the autumn Budget, and will see chancellor Rishi Sunak outline governmental spending plans for the next three years.
Opening the online summit, SOM chief executive Nick Pahl highlighted the government’s response to the Health is everyone’s business consultation from the cross-departmental Work and Health Unit published in July.
The fact departmental budgets are being set next month meant there was therefore an opportunity for OH to make its voice heard in Westminster.
“This is an important time politically as departments get their three-years settlements from the Treasury for the comprehensive spending review. What I would encourage throughout the afternoon is for you to contact your local MP to encourage them to encourage the Treasury to sympathetically look at the request from the Work and Health Unit at the Department for Work and Pensions on what is a good programme of action that does need to be funded,” Pahl said.
The summit included speakers from Finland, the World Health Organization and the European Union, among others, and looked at the case for having, and the value of, much more comprehensive occupational health coverage.
Future of OH
Professor Dame Carol Black highlighted that the pandemic had put the profession, and the value of workplace health support, into the spotlight like never before.
“As we battle with Covid the profession has been crucial for employers in so many ways, including risk assessment and return to work. The profession has really risen to this challenge, showing exactly what it can do,” she said.
“Going forward, multidisciplinary occupational health will be critical to the delivery of healthy workplaces, vaccinations, working in partnership with others.”
But words and plaudits could not replace action and investment, she added. “And the way that can be done is through the comprehensive spending review, and through the Department for Work and Pensions and its Work and Health Unit. Therefore, to get something from this comprehensive spending review is really crucial moving forward.”
Professor Ewan Macdonald of the University of Glasgow, which co-organised the event with SOM, highlighted a recent blogpost analysis by occupational physician Dr Paul Nicholson that has suggested OH provision within the UK is even less than the oft-cited 50%, and more like 30% to 34%.
Dr Steve Boorman, chair of the Council for Work and Health, argued such a low figure was “simply unacceptable” if the UK wanted OH to be more than “a reactive breakdown service.”
“If we are to recover properly [from the pandemic] in terms of the economy in the UK, then we have to recognise that business case [for OH investment] and we have to understand that a multidisciplinary approach – and that is very much the ethos of the council – to occupational health is necessary in terms of driving the agenda forward and growing the capacity that we actually have,” he said.
Senior Conservative MP and former environment secretary Theresa Villiers congratulated the profession for rising to the multiple workplace health challenges posed by the pandemic.
“You have been doing incredibly important work throughout the pandemic and without your skills, understanding and dedication, the reopening of the economy would have been far slower and more difficult,” she said.
“I think the Covid emergency has provoked us to rethink how we do many things in this country. For a start, at a fundamental level it has brought home to everyone the importance of trying to live healthier and more active lives. So, I very much support efforts to broaden access to high-quality occupational health services and advice.
“Following what I have heard today, I will certainly be encouraging ministers to take further active steps to improve access to occupational health services,” she added.