“Wrong time” to be launching new public health body, experts say
Matt Hancock has confirmed the agency will be replaced by a new body focused on preparing for external threats like pandemics.
Baroness Dido Harding, who runs NHS Test and Trace in England, will be the interim chief of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).
But health experts warn that the dismantling of the agency will distract staff from dealing with Coronavirus.
Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Trust, said: “The Government risks making a major misstep by dismantling its own Public Health agency at such a crucial time, creating a huge distraction for staff who should be dedicating themselves to the next stage of the pandemic.”
He added: “There is no doubt that Public Health England is far from perfect: serious questions should be asked about the agency’s role in some of the failures around testing, contract tracing and PPE in the early stages of the pandemic. But the correct way to respond to these questions is a proper and evidence-led investigation of what went wrong across Government.”
Ministers have been accused of using PHE as a scapegoat for failings.
The Government was criticised for the controversial decision in March to halt community testing and tracing of contacts.
The new institute will begin work with immediate effect and will bring together Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, as well as the analytical capability of the Joint Biosecurity Centre under a single leadership team.
Hancock said it would have a “single and relentless mission” of protecting people from external health threats including pandemics, biological weapons and infectious diseases.
He added: “Even once this crisis has passed – and it will pass – we need a disease control infrastructure that gives us the permanent, standing capacity to respond as a nation and the ability to scale up at pace.”
It is believed the new health protection agency for England will be modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute which combats infectious diseases.
Richard Murray, Chief Executive of The King’s Fund, described the move as “risky” with winter – and potentially a second spike – approaching.
He said: “History is littered with reorganisations of the health system that are costly, time consuming and demoralising for staff.
“The proposed changes could bring greater accountability and transparency to England’s track and trace system. Whilst that would be welcome, the reshuffling of public health duties risks significant collateral damage. PHE’s role goes far beyond pandemic response and includes, among other things, tackling obesity, reducing health inequalities and improving life expectancy, all of which will be key to the country’s recovery once the worst of the pandemic has passed.”