The government is scrapping Public Health England - here's why it's proven controversial

Monday, 17th August 2020, 12:24 pm
Updated Monday, 17th August 2020, 12:24 pm
The government has criticised Public Health England for its handling of the coronavirus ppandemic - but many have claimed that the government are simply trying to deflect responsibility (Getty Images)

Public Health England (PHE) is to be scrapped and replaced by a new organisation set up specifically to deal with a pandemic, it has been reported.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will announce this week that the pandemic response work of PHE will be merged with NHS Test and Trace, according to The Sunday Telegraph.

The paper said the new body will be called the Institute for Health Protection and will become “effective” next month, although it will take until next spring to complete the changeover. The Conservative peer and former TalkTalk telecoms boss Baroness Harding, who currently heads Test and Trace, is being tipped to lead the organisation, the Telegraph said.

The publication quoted a senior minister as saying, “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 reported move follows repeated reports over recent months that ministers have been unhappy and frustrated with PHE’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman 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.”

Government accused of deflecting

The move has been met with criticism from some, who claim that the government is attempting to deflect from its own handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, representing NHS trusts, said “years of underfunding” for PHE and public health more generally have left the country unprepared to deal with a pandemic.

He said that, unlike other health bodies such as NHS England, PHE - which replaced the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in 2013 under the Conservatives’ NHS reorganisation - is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care.

“This gives ministers direct control of its activities,” Hopson said.

“So whilst it might be convenient to seek to blame PHE’s leadership team, it is important that the Government reflect on its responsibilities as well.”

These comments were echoed by Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor at the Institute of Health Informatics, University College London, who said the move is a “huge concern” in the midst of a global health crisis.

“If PHE has fallen short, responsibility lies firmly with the current Government and health ministers,” he said.

“Rather than a rash restructuring, a sensible approach must involve a rapid enquiry to establish lessons learned for future waves and future pandemics.”