Health Minister Nicola Blackwood has announced up to £56 million funding for research into the biggest challenges facing public health - climate change, air pollution, antimicrobial resistance and global pandemics.

Universities in England can now apply to be selected to partner with Public Health England (PHE) to form the next wave of Health Protection Research Units (HPRUs) funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The most promising research proposals from academics – selected following an open competition – will be funded from April 2020 to March 2025, the government said.

“From the eradication of smallpox, record low smoking rates and ever-increasing life expectancy, the UK’s public health record is a roll call of successes which have saved the lives of millions,” said health minister Nicola Blackwood commenting on the move.

“This new investment, as part of our Long Term Plan for the NHS, will unlock further solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the health and care system over the next 5 years, aiming to drastically improve all of our lives.”

“Tackling threats to public health like air pollution and antimicrobial resistance relies on cutting-edge research and up-to-date evidence,” noted Professor Chris Whitty, NIHR lead and chief scientific adviser for the Department of Health and Social Care.

“The new NIHR Health Protection Research Units will lead the way in producing the evidence needed to inform policy and safeguard public health, as well as building research capacity in this important field so that we can tackle the challenges of the future.”

Air pollution evidence review

The announcement came just days before Public Health England (PHE) published its air pollution evidence review, informing local and national government on actions to improve outdoor air quality and health.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, it warned, noting that between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year can be attributed to long-term exposure. “There is strong evidence that air pollution causes the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and exacerbates asthma,” the agency said.

“Now is our opportunity to create a clean air generation of children, by implementing interventions in a coordinated way. By making new developments clean by design we can create a better environment for everyone, especially our children,” noted Professor Paul Cosford, director of Health Protection and Medical Director at PHE.

The agency has drawn up a list of recommendations for local authorities to help them clean up the air in their localities, including redesigning cities so people aren’t so close to highly polluting roads, and discouraging highly polluting vehicles from entering populated areas.