Coronavirus: Health Secretary to replace Public Health England with specialist pandemic unit, says report
Ministers are reportedly frustrated and unhappy with the way that PHE has responded to the coronavirus outbreak.
Public Health England (PHE) is set to be scrapped and replaced with a unit that will specifically deal with pandemics, it has been reported.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to announce the move later this week, and will merge the NHS Test and Trace scheme with the work done by PHE on the coronavirus response, according to the Sunday Telegraph.
The overhaul comes after repeated reports that ministers have been frustrated and unhappy with the way PHE, which was created by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2013, has dealt with the coronavirus crisis.
The government adopted a new way of counting daily deaths from COVID-19, after concerns were raised that the method used by PHE officials overstated them.
Five deaths of people with COVID-19 were recorded on Saturday, according to government data while 1,040 tested positive in the 24 hours up to 9am on Sunday – a rise from Saturday’s 1,012.
It marks the sixth day in a row that more than 1,000 new confirmed cases have been recorded in the UK.
Responding to the Sunday Telegraph report, 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.”
The new body will be called the Institute for Health Protection and will become “effective” next month, but will not be fully complete until the spring, the paper said.
It is said to be based on a similar model in Germany, which has used the independent Robert Koch Institute to take control of the country’s response to the pandemic.
Professor Dr Dirk Brockmann, project group leader at the Robert Koch Institute, said “independence is key” as he explained how the institute works with the German government.
“It is part of the federal government but is run independently,” he told Sky News.
“The science we produce, we can say something about it and do so independently.
“You can have both, I think.”
Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers, representing medics, said PHE’s remit was too wide and meant it struggled to cope with COVID-19.
He said the fact it has always been an executive agency of the Department of Health gave ministers direct control of its activities, meaning the government is responsible for it, not just PHE’s leadership team.
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.
Leading doctors have not welcomed the news, with many saying the move is a disruption during the ongoing global pandemic.
Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor at the Institute of Health Informatics, University College London, said: “If PHE has fallen short, responsibility lies firmly with the current government and health ministers.
“Rather than a rash restructuring, a sensible approach must involve a rapid enquiry to establish lessons learned for future waves and future pandemics.”
Professor Dame Til Wykes, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, said merging PHE with a “failing Track and Trace service provides little confidence for the future”.
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Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association council chairman, said budget cuts and fragmentation of PHE over the years “have hampered the response” to the pandemic.
“We must absolutely not allow PHE and its staff to shoulder the blame for wider failings and government decisions,” he said.
“Public Health England should be part of a fully-integrated Public Health and NHS both locally and nationally. We also believe that Public Health doctors must be able to voice their views and policies independently in the interests of the public’s health and without ministerial constraints.”
Doctor and broadcaster Dr Phil Hammond tweeted: “@PHE_uk is under direct control of @MattHancock. If it has failed, he has failed. The National Institute for Health Protection is simply the Health Protection Agency we used to have before it was merged into @PHE_uk in 2012 with 40% budget cuts. Hancock will still be in charge.”
Baroness Dido Harding, the Conservative peer and former TalkTalk telecoms boss who is currently heading up Test and Trace, is being tipped to run the new department.
“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,” a senior minister told the Sunday Telegraph.
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said appointing Baroness Harding “makes about as much sense as (chief medical officer) Chris Whitty being appointed the Vodafone head of branding and corporate image”.
Test and Trace call centres are set to be wound down over the next few months, and replaced with local teams run by councils, like the system put in place in Sandwell, in the West Midlands.
More lockdown measures across England were lifted, with casinos, ice rinks and spa treatments able to operate again from Saturday.
PHE is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care but has operational autonomy and its own chief executive, Duncan Selbie.
Its creation in 2013 brought together public health specialists from more than 70 organisations into a single service.
PHE now employs the equivalent of 5,500 full-time staff, made up mostly of scientists, researchers and public health professionals.
It has eight local centres across England’s regions, as well as one in London.