The UK Health Security Agency is understood to be cutting its headcount by 40% – equating to a reduction of around 800 full-time equivalent roles – in a move that has drawn criticism from civil service unions and been dubbed “irresponsible” by public-health experts.
Led by former deputy chief medical offier Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA was launched last year to bring together parts of the former Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre as part of the government’s Covid response.
The Department of Health and Social Care executive agency is responsible for protecting the nation from the impact of infectious diseases, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents and other health threats.
It has not confirmed details of the staffing reduction plans, but acknowledges that numbers are being reduced, with one measure being the termination of temporary contracts. The organisation said the plan was in line with the government’s Living with Covid-19 strategy, published in February.
The Faculty of Public Health questioned the logic of stepping back health-protection capability now.
“Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of a properly resourced public health system,” it said in a tweet, saying the cuts are "irresponsible and threaten the health of all in society".
According to the government’s latest statistics, 2,062 people who died over the past week had tested positive for Covid-19 within the previous 28 days. A total of 191,277 deaths have been recorded with Covid-19 on the death certificate since the onset of the pandemic more than two years ago.
Jawad Raza, a national officer at public sector leaders’ union the FDA, said reducing headcount at the UKHSA was a bad idea that was also being badly executed, in a way that would further harm the organisation.
“Staff morale is indeed very low and this process isn’t being handled well, experienced staff are now looking to move elsewhere,” he said.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said reducing capacity at UKHSA was the wrong plan at the wrong time.
“Predecessor agencies had been subject to damaging spending cuts over the past decade, leaving them with too few staff and other resources when the pandemic hit,” he said.
“The UKHSA deals with a whole number of risks to health, not just Covid or another future pandemic: it needs investment not dangerous cutbacks.”
Paul Cain, director general for health protection operations at UKHSA, said changes to the size and shape of the organisation were part of its long-term plan.
“In line with the government’s Living with Covid-19 plan we are adjusting the size of our workforce as was always planned,” he said.
“Temporary staff contracts are being brought to an end and those affected are being updated, at the same time we will build new capability based on the lessons of Covid.
“Those that joined NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England to manage the pandemic response played a crucial role and we thank them for their efforts once again.”