Public Health England and the IASC jointly hosted a roundtable this week to discuss a public health approach to modern slavery and human trafficking. We brought together a range of academics, policymakers, practitioners and civil society to consider the value of taking a broad preventative approach to modern slavery using public health knowledge and principles. Everybody there agreed that this could be a valuable approach that could complement the criminal justice response to modern slavery. When we think about prevention, it’s not just about the particular circumstances and needs of a vulnerable victim. It’s about thinking much more broadly about the causes of the causes and the way that we can work together using a multi-agency approach to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking from happening in the first place.

We considered a rapid evidence assessment which was completed in 2017 by Elizabeth Such from the University of Sheffield in collaboration with Public Health England. This assessment made the case for public health engagement in this issue and identified an emergent public health approach to modern slavery. It’s clear that there is some good work happening across the country. Karen Saunders from Public Health England explained the approach being taken in the West Midlands which provided an example of partnership working regionally.

We spent some time thinking about the development of professional training standards for the identification, support and care for victims of modern slavery and human trafficking by Lara Bundock from the Snowdrop Project and Dr Kathryn Hodges from St Marys University. They are hopeful that these standards will be signed off by Skills for Care & Development. We also heard about the great work of VITA and the VITA Network who have been championing the need for medical staff to be trained in this area. They briefed us on a pilot they are running, delivering practical training to up to 3,000 junior doctors across the south east with an external education evaluation. It’s clear that being able to identify those who are victims of modern slavery and human trafficking when they access health services is a crucial component of a public health approach.

The group discussed the extent of the evidence about the health needs of victims and survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking. Modern slavery is largely a hidden crime, people are often mistrusting of authorities and information about their health is difficult to collect. Everyone agreed that more and better evidence is needed on these needs. There was some discussion about the overlap with other vulnerable populations, such as vulnerable migrants or people who experience homelessness, and what we could learn from what has been done to understand their health needs.

The group identified three areas of work to progress. Public Health England committed to leading the development of a framework for multi-agency partnerships working in collaboration with academics, other government departments, local sector and civil society. Public Health England also committed to develop work to better understand the health needs of victims and survivors. No-one underestimated how difficult it was and that it might take some years – but in the way that we understand the health needs of the homeless, or of migrants, this was an important step to take. And lastly, everyone was committed to encouraging consistent standards in care, the need for training to instil knowledge, and better understanding how the system needs to change to best support victims and survivors.