A supposedly key public health report published last week should have been released 18 months ago and will 'not set the heathers alight', a health expert claims.

The 'huge delay' before the publication last week of the Report of the Chief Medical Officer's Project to Strengthen the Public Health Function 'sends out a signal that the government is not that committed to public health', according to David Hunter, professor of health policy and management at Durham University.

But public health minister Yvette Cooper told HSJ this week that the profile of public health had been 'substantially transformed' over the past four years and defended the chief medical officer's document as an 'important report'.

Begun by then CMO Sir Kenneth Calman in summer 1997, its publication slot should have been 'hard on the heels' of the 1999 white paper Saving Lives:

our healthier nation, Professor Hunter maintained.

The CMO's report calls for a bigger and more skilled workforce over the next five to 10 years as well as the setting up of a national public health forum.

Ms Cooper, who will go on maternity leave in July, believes the public health minister's job should remain in the Department of Health, rather than move to the Cabinet office, one of the issues discussed during evidence to the Commons health select committee.

But at last week's UK Public Health Association conference, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw - parliamentary private secretary to health minister John Denham - said: 'I am sure she would rather be in the Cabinet. . . so that issues can be dealt with in a much more holistic way.'

The government intends to publish a response to the health committee report 'in the near future'. Another public health document, - From Vision to Reality - 'a review of progress in a number of different policy areas', is also due to be published shortly.