Public health returns to form

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
19 May, 2023

Meet the new public health. Same as the old public health.

Covid had no silver linings. But I had at least hoped public health would lay off hectoring us about food and drink for a little while. Surely they would have more pressing concerns.

Last week, the government resurrected its Public Health Advisory Committee. It would be tasked with one substantial research project for the year.

Would it focus on infectious disease or go back to trying to ban or tut-tut tasty things?

I’m betting you can guess. Public health has form.

Saying infectious disease had taken a back seat to lifestyle regulation in the decade leading up to the pandemic would be too charitable. Policy around infectious disease wasn’t in any back seat. It wasn’t even in the car. It was an unsecured bit of load bouncing around in the trailer, with nobody even checking the rear-view mirror occasionally to ensure it was still there.

The Ministry of Health hadn’t been able to ensure hospital workers were vaccinated during 2019’s measles outbreak. They blamed the District Health Boards, only two of which had bothered keeping records. But the Ministry of Health had been able to compel the DHBs to stop selling soda in the hospital cafeterias.

Infectious disease just wasn’t as important to the Ministry as soda.

Has the pandemic changed anything?

The big Covid policy response is over. But a lot of work could be done in preparation for worse variants or new viruses entirely.

Would improved ventilation standards, especially at schools, be cost-effective?

Are our medicine and vaccine approval processes nimble enough to handle fast-moving viruses?

I desperately hope we never need Managed Isolation and Quarantine again, but if we do, could we design a system that sucked just a bit less?

The Committee won’t be looking at any of that.

Instead, the Health Minister has asked it to investigate healthy food. Committee Chair Kevin Hague wants to know, “what would a fantastic food retail environment look like?”

I know what a fantastic food retail environment looks like. My favourite supermarkets deliver it every day. They make it easy for me to buy the tasty things I want to eat and drink. If they don’t, my business goes elsewhere.

There’s a tougher research question out there. Harder even than the ones I’ve suggested.

How do we get public health to stop pestering about food and drink when they can’t even keep on top of plummeting childhood vaccination rates?

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