rime Minister Gordon Brown has brought Andy Burnham back to the Department of Health in his Cabinet reshuffle, appointing him health secretary following the departure of Alan Johnson, who is now the new home secretary.

Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh - who Brown plucked from his previous position as culture secretary - already had a stint at the Department of Health back in 2006-07, when he was minister for healthcare delivery and reform. In addition, Burnham was a member of the Health Select Committee in 2001-03, and was a researcher at the NHS Confederation in 2007, so brings a varied background in health to his new role.

In his first interview as health secretary with the Guardian, Burnham pledged to help the public become fitter through the increased promotion and funding of exercise by primary care trusts, in line with the current shift in healthcare focus to disease prevention rather than cure. “For the NHS, that is the direction it’s got to go - a prevention service to keep people healthy in the first place”, he told the paper.

The idea behind the drive is that boosting levels of physical activity will help turn out a healthier population and thereby lessen the pressure on the health service, which is already having to juggle an increasing demand - because of soaring rates of diabetes and obesity, for example - with tighter purse strings.

Commenting on the appointment, Niall Dickson, chief executive of health think tank The King’s Fund said while he welcomed the new choice of health secretary, particularly as Burnham has experience of the health system and is committed to NHS reform, it is “frustrating to have another change at the top when Alan Johnson had been in post for less than two years”. Furthermore, he claims the move “has nothing to do with what is best for the health service”.

Strong leadership essential
According to Dickson, as demands on the health service continue to escalate, managers, doctors and nurses will need to pull together to redesign the way services are run, and “a test of the new Secretary of State will be his ability to display strong leadership by supporting those who have to make these difficult decisions at local level”.

NHS Confederation chief executive Steve Barnett said the new health secretary will “face some major challenges as finances are squeezed”, but also stressed that he considers Burnham “an excellent choice”.

In other movements at the DH, Mike O’Brien and Gillian Merron have been selected as new health ministers to replace Ben Bradshaw and Dawn Primarolo, although health minister Phil Hope has held onto his current position and responsibilities in social care, amongst others.

Gillian Merron, MP for Lincoln, was previously a minister at the Foreign Office, while Mike O’Brien, MP for North Warwickshire, comes from the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Merron's new responsibilities include tackling health inequalities, research and deveopment and overseeing national programmes for health improvement, while O'Brien's new portfolio includes finance, policy and strategy and commissioning.