Public Health England is to be scrapped as an independent health agency under government plans to set up a “more agile” body responsible for dealing with pandemics.
Amid fears of an autumn or winter resurgence of coronavirus in the UK, officials confirmed that plans to merge the agency with the NHS test and trace programme would be set out in detail early this week.
As ministers scramble to explain England’s poor response to the virus and high death toll, Boris Johnson’s government has increasingly sought to blame PHE for much of what has gone wrong.
Among the criticisms of the agency is that it stopped tracing contacts of all people who had tested positive for coronavirus once case numbers began to rise sharply in March.
Speaking in July, Matt Hancock hinted that PHE would not continue in its current form. It was “really good as a scientific organisation”, the health secretary told MPs, but was not well placed to deliver a nationwide Covid-19 testing system.
Officials said the government was committed to looking at ways to “improve the system” and ensure the country is prepared for a second wave”. While the new body will “look different, the key functions of PHE will all be fulfilled”, they said.
John Ashton, a former regional director at Public Health England, accused the government of creating another over-centralised organisation.
“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”, he told the BBC.
“You don’t change horses midstream — this pandemic has still got a long way to run.”
PHE came into being as part of a wide-ranging shake-up of the NHS almost ten years ago and is an executive agency of the Department of Health, reporting directly to the health secretary.
The new body is expected to look similar to Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, which has been praised for co-ordinating the country’s public health response to the pandemic. The Sunday Telegraph first reported the UK body would be called the ‘National Institute for Health Protection.’
The prime minister himself has admitted that parts of the government’s response had been “sluggish”, remarks widely seen as a dig at PHE. He has promised a public inquiry, which will undoubtedly scrutinise the role of the agency.
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.”
Downing Street refused to comment.
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