Public Health England to be scrapped after criticism of how it handled coronavirus crisis

New National Institute for Health Protection set to be in place by September, with test and trace chief Dido Harding tipped to lead it
Health secretary Matt Hancock gives a speech at PHE's annual conference in September 2019. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Archive/PA Images

By Eleanor Langford

17 Aug 2020

Public Health England is set to be scrapped and replaced amid criticism of the organisation’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that the executive agency will be merged with the NHS Test and Trace programme to form the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), with plans set to be announced by health secretary Matt Hancock later this week. 

Boris Johnson hinted in June at his frustration with the public health agency, promising to “fix the problems” exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic including the “sluggish” response of some areas in government.

The government stepped in after PHE – set up in 2013 under former health secretary Jeremy Hunt – was criticised for its method of reporting daily deaths, with some fearing the figures were being overstated. 

A senior minister told the newspaper: "We want to bring together the science and the scale in one new body so we can do all we can to stop a second coronavirus spike this autumn.

"The National Institute for Health Protection’s goal will be simple: to ensure that Britain is one of the best-equipped countries in the world to fight the pandemic."

It is understood the new body will be in place by September, ready for a potential second wave of the virus in the autumn, with test and trace chief Baroness Dido Harding tipped to lead it. 

PHE’s replacement is set to be modelled on Germany’s Robert Kock Institute, which manages the nation’s pandemic response, with further inspiration also being taken from South Korea’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, other areas currently under PHE’s remit, such as tackling obesity, will be handed over to local authorities and the NHS in a bid to focus the NIHP. 

Another source said: "One of the many problems with PHE is that it has been spread too thin during the full pandemic.

"Instead of having an organisation that is constantly on alert for pandemics you have an organisation that has been concentrating on prevention of ill-health."

But PHE chief Duncan Selbie defended the organisation’s response, adding: "The UK had no national diagnostic testing capabilities other than in the NHS at the outset of the pandemic. PHE does not do mass diagnostic testing.

He told the Sunday Telegraph: "We operate national reference and research laboratories focussed on novel and dangerous pathogens, and it was never at any stage our role to set the national testing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic. This responsibility rested with DHSC."

Responding to the claims, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "Public Health England have played an integral role in our national response to this unprecedented global pandemic.

"We have always been clear that we must learn the right lessons from this crisis to ensure that we are in the strongest possible position, both as we continue to deal with Covid-19 and to respond to any future public health threat."

Eleanor Langford is a reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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