- Posted Tuesday August 18, 2020
Public Health England is expected to be scrapped and replaced by a new body by early September, according to a social media ‘leak’ on Saturday and a report by the Sunday Telegraph.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is expected to announce this week that he will merge PHE and the work done by NHS Test and Trace into a new ‘National Institute for Health and Protection’, which will become "effective" next month but will not be fully complete until the spring, according to the paper. Baroness Dido Harding, currently Chair of NHS Improvement and Head of the Test and Trace programme, is expected to run this new department.
PHE will continue to be responsible for prevention issues (such as the government’s latest anti-obesity measures), but it is speculated that this will eventually be handed over to local authorities and the NHS to focus the new NIHP’s work on the pandemic.
In response to the Telegraph’s article, a DoH spokesman said; "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."
Public Health England's coronavirus response
PHE’s decisions made in March 2020 were done in collaboration with ministers, chief medical officers, and scientific advisers as awareness of the coronavirus pandemic grew and a public health response was required. Some have pointed out that when it was set up in 2013, PHE was not set up for mass population testing and had been spread too thin, without the capacity to properly track the virus and administer tests when the outbreak began.
The decision to scrap PHE has been widely rumoured after heavy criticism from within the government for its role in the UK’s coronavirus response. It has been accused of failing to have the capacity to properly track the virus and administer tests when the outbreak began.
John Ashton, a former regional director of public health in north-west England, said PHE had “a bad pandemic” but criticised the government’s reported plans to scrap the organisation. He told the BBC News Channel: “You don’t deal with the problem of an over-centralised, dysfunctional organisation by creating another over-centralised organisation, which is what is being proposed."
“You don’t change horses mid-stream – this pandemic has still got a long way to run,” he said, adding that PHE should be strengthened rather than ditched.
BMA council chair Dr. Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘We already have public health expertise in this country which is of the highest quality but despite the hard work of our colleagues in the last six months, substantial budget cuts and fragmentation of these services over years have hampered the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We must absolutely not allow PHE and its staff to shoulder the blame for wider failings and Government decisions."
Chris Hopson, chief of NHS Providers said that PHE's remit was too wide, which meant it struggled to cope with responding to the pandemic. In a public response to the news, he cited five issues that impacted their work, including “years of underfunding (which) has resulted in the UK not being properly prepared to tackle a pandemic such as COVID-19”, and pointing out that Ministers, not PHE officials, were also driving key responsibilities such as testing in the early stages of the pandemic - and there needs to a better balance between national and local level activity, he added.
Chief Executive of Public Health England Duncan Selbie defended the organisation’s response, saying; "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.
"We operate national reference and research laboratories focused 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."
What is Public Health England and what do they do?
PHE was created in 2013 by Jeremy Hunt as part of an overhaul of the NHS in England after the Health and Social Care Act was introduced. It took on the responsibilities of several separate groups such as the Health Protection Agency and is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care. It currently has responsibilities which include preparing and responding to health-related emergencies such as pandemics.
The organisation currently employs around 5,500 full-time staff, made up mostly of scientists, researchers, and public health professionals. Its website says it was established to bring together public health specialists from more than 70 organisations into a single public health service.
Public Health England has run campaigns on health prevention such as ‘Be Clear on Cancer’, Change4Life and ACT FAST.