Matt Hancock has defended his decision to put Conservative peer Dido Harding in charge of a new body that will replace Public Health England.
The health secretary said Baroness Harding, a former boss of mobile phone giant TalkTalk who will head up the new National Institute for Health Protection, had led a “huge expansion” of the UK’s coronavirus testing capacity.
And he pointed out that she had spent three years chairing health body NHS Improvement.
Hancock confirmed yesterday that PHE, which has been criticised in some quarters for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, will be scrapped and replaced the NIHP to protect the nation's health "now and in the future".
He said the new body would combine the existing "talent and science infrastructure" of PHE with NHS Test and Trace, currently headed up by Harding.
It will also take on the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre, and be dedicated "to the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and external health threats”.
Harding will lead the new body on an interim basis.
And yesterday Michael Brodie, chief executive of NHS Business Services Authority, confirmed he had been appointed interim chief exec of PHE "as we transition to the next phase of the evolution of the public health system".
"Whilst change is always difficult, we have an opportunity, together, to respect and build on what has gone before and to create and deliver an exciting and positive vision for the future and I will work tirelessly to ensure a smooth and successful transition," Brodie said.
But in scrapping the public-health body, Labour accused the government of a "desperate attempt to shift the blame after years of cutting public health budgets", while the Liberal Democrats said people would be “shocked by the lack of transparency around the decision to promote Tory insider Dido Harding to this pivotal role”.
Speaking to Sky News this morning, Hancock defended Harding's track record.
“She's been the chair of NHS improvement for the last three years,” he said.
“For the last almost six months, she's been running an NHS Test and Trace system which so far has been in contact with a quarter of a million people asking them to self-isolate to stop passing on the disease, and has been responsible for the huge expansion in the testing capacity that we have in this country which is now one of the biggest globally.
“So, Baroness Harding has done a huge amount in the health field as well as of course having having experience outside and in the private sector which means that she has great experience of running large organisations.”
Asked whether the role required somebody with more scientific experience, the health secretary said that while scientific knowledge was “a very important part” of the public health body’s remit, it was “also a seriously large delivery organisation”.
“You know it delivers just under 300,000 tests a day,” Hancock said.
“That is a massive logistical operation so it's both scientific but it's also about scale.
“And that's one of the challenges that we've had in this crisis, has been building up that scale.”
He added: “All of this is about making sure we are as prepared as we possibly can for the next phase of the fight against coronavirus.”
Harding’s appointment has also received the backing of hospitals membership group NHS Providers, which said she had “been an effective chair at NHS Improvement" and had "demonstrated a significantly improved grip over the government’s testing and tracing activity since setting up NHS Test and Trace".
But the group's chief executive Chris Hopson said it was “important that any permanent appointments go through due and proper process which will include taking full and proper account of party political affiliations”.
And he urged the government to put a stop to a trend which meant responsibility for public health had “yo-yo’ed between local and national, NHS and local government and a string of different national organisations”.
They said: “We must get this next change right, recognising that the NHS, local government and wider public services are all key to effective public health.
“We also need the Comprehensive Spendiing Review to confirm proper investment in public health going forward.”
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.