Covid-19 and the public health system

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In partnership with


Why we're doing this project

Directors of public health have a critical role in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their knowledge and expertise in population health, training and responsibility in infectious disease control are vital in addressing its immediate impacts on the health of their local populations (as well as the economic impacts of the pandemic and its aftermath). Their understanding of local places and resources, such as contact tracing, and their broader role in local government situate them at the centre of local decision-making that affects public health.

The King’s Fund, in partnership with the Health Foundation, is undertaking this project to explore the local response to and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. This research will capture a cross section of experiences of directors of public health (and of wider local leaders) in managing the pandemic – both in terms of the immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its wider impacts on local systems, for example schools, housing and the local economy. There is little research about how local systems have prepared and responded to emergencies. This knowledge is key to understanding the effectiveness of the role of directors of public health, how they can be developed, and how re-emergence of coronavirus (or similar viruses) are dealt with in the future.

What we're doing

The core of the work will be three inter-related qualitative studies. Through a mixed-methods approach, we will conduct repeated interviews with up to 12 directors of public health and two in-depth system studies to provide a real-time assessment of change and adaption of local policy response.

Additional interviews with key system leaders in other nations of the UK will enable us to understand how directors of public health are engaged with local responses and how these have been co-ordinated with regional and national responses. The longitudinal elements of the study will enable us to develop a comprehensive understanding of views, actions and roles and how they have changed over time, to capture the experience of moving through the process of the epidemic – from preparation through response to recovery.

Our work will be supported by an advisory group, which includes members from Association of Directors of Public Health, the Local Government Association, Public Health England and other stakeholders. 

Key milestones

We expect to publish a joint report in June 2021.

Project leads


David Buck

Senior Fellow , Public Health and Inequalities


Shilpa Ross

Fellow, Policy


Deborah Fenney

Researcher, Policy


Clair Thorstensen-Woll

Research assistant, Policy