Public Health England (PHE) will be scrapped as part of plans for a new organisation responsible for dealing with pandemics, the health secretary has announced.
Matt Hancock confirmed the decision to set up a body called the National Institute for Health Protection, which will also work against the threats of biological weapons and infectious diseases. During a speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank, Mr Hancock said the new National Institute for Health Protection will have a “single and relentless mission” to protect the country from external threats, including infectious diseases, outbreaks and biological weapons.
Baroness Dido Harding, presently in charge of Whitehall’s contact tracing operation, will temporarily head the new body and lead the search for a permanent successor.
Commenting on Matt Hancock MP’s announcement of change sot the English public health system, Richard Murray, Chief Executive of The King’s Fund, said:
“Public Health England (PHE) appears to have been found guilty without a trial. It is unclear what problem government are hoping to solve by carving up PHE and redistributing its responsibilities. Undoubtedly, there are questions to be answered about England’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England’s public health agency.
“History is littered with reorganisations of the health system that are costly, time consuming and demoralising for staff. It is risky to undertake such a shakeup whilst the nation is still grappling with Covid-19, ahead of an anticipated winter spike in demand for health services and with the looming threat of a second wave of the virus.
“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. We support the Secretary of State’s commitments to embed health improvement and inequality reduction across government and look forward to seeing the detail needed to achieve this critical endeavour. PHE staff have the expertise to support this, and this must not be lost as a consequence of these changes.
“More immediately, the dividing up of national public health responsibilities could further complicate the balance of local and national decision making and cause greater confusion for local Directors of Public Health who are responsible for both health protection and health improvement.
“If the government wants to avoid the mistakes of the past, it must be crystal clear on what it hopes the new National Institute for Health Protection will achieve, how the many other critical public health duties will be delivered across government, and how the whole system will be adequately funded.”