Duncan Selbie on how Public Health England responded to incidents in 2018 – from the Novichok poisonings to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Written by Duncan Selbie on 30 December 2018 in Feature

With the end of 2018 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top civil servants to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2019 – and tell us who would turn on their town’s Christmas lights.

What was your highlight of 2018?

Our first duty is to protect the health of the people and again this year, our scientists and public health teams have responded to thousands of local outbreaks of infectious diseases and other environmental hazards, and to a number of major incidents, including the Novichok poisonings, England’s first cases of monkey pox and the ongoing response to the Grenfell Tower fire.

And in November we hosted the annual conference for the International Association of National Public Health Institutes in London, welcoming the directors of national public health institutes and agencies representing 57 countries, from China to Zambia. Infectious diseases do not respect borders and non-communicable diseases account for four of the five leading causes of death across the world – with numbers one and two being ischaemic heart disease and stroke. This annual meeting is about learning from each other and getting to know each other, something we all had to improve on following the experience of the ebola outbreak in West Africa.

What is the hardest part of being a leader?

A constant for any leader is creating an environment where colleagues of all levels feel able and safe to raise concerns and when things go wrong, as they do in every organisation, ensuring the focus is on fixing the problem and learning for the future.

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

Playing our full part as the NHS invests more in the prediction and prevention of poor health, and working with all our colleagues across the health and care sector and in government on the forthcoming green paper on prevention. This should ensure promoting good health is at the heart of all government policymaking.

Which celebrity or historical figure would you choose to turn on the Christmas lights in your town, and why?

There are many people who have helped me over near 40 years of public service and I would choose them over a celebrity or historical figure.

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Duncan Selbie
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Duncan Selbie is the chief executive ofPublic Health England

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