The government's decision to focus the work of the NHS on cancer, heart disease and mental health will bring major challenges to the new ministerial team at the Department of Health.

All of these conditions cause high levels of mortality and morbidity in Britain because of inequalities in society and because action to tackle the root causes of ill-health is often marginal to public policy. All of them affect the most excluded in society hardest. They all require concerted action which crosses Whitehall boundaries.

The task ahead for health secretary Alan Milburn and public health minister Yvette Cooper will be to ensure those priorities are met by effective action across government. They will have to ensure that significant resources are put into measures that work to prevent cancer, heart disease and mental illness, particularly among the most disadvantaged in society.

This should mean more sharing of resources between the NHS and other bodies, such as housing associations and community groups, that influence people's health.

It will also require a more open system for setting priorities in the NHS, which the health secretary has begun by moving away from focusing on waiting lists as the barometer of the health service's performance.

Improving the public's health is the responsibility of everyone in society.

The government has a great opportunity to lead efforts to make that a priority across the spectrum of public policy.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger Chief executive King's Fund