The quango has been responsible for many critical failures over the course of this pandemic
As we reported on Sunday, Public Health England (PHE) is to be abolished and replaced by a German-style pandemic response agency. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, confirmed the move yesterday to a chorus of criticism from opposition politicians and practitioners who accused the Government of shifting the blame for its Covid response onto the quango.
But since it was PHE’s job to prepare the ground for dealing with imported infectious diseases and it failed to do so effectively, why would anyone want it to carry on in its current form? This is far too important an issue for politicians to indulge in blame games. The question is whether the existing system works and if it doesn’t what will?
Mr Hancock is setting up a new body called the National Institute for Health Protection with the sole task of planning against pandemics. PHE focused too much on “lifestyle” health problems and international activities that were distractions from its principal function. It was spending twice as much on what it called the “obesity epidemic” than on preparing for the influx and spread of a virulent contagion.
While Mr Hancock was at pains to praise the efforts of PHE during the crisis, ministers have been complaining privately for months that a lack of preparedness had left the country badly exposed when the virus hit in February. Failure to set up a working track and trace system, as well as the shortage of personal protective equipment, can be laid at PHE’S door; so, too, the reluctance to engage the private sector and academia in tackling the virus.
As a result, the impact of the pandemic has been far worse here than in Germany, where planners were on top of matters from the start. The new body will be modelled on the Robert Koch Institute which co-ordinated Germany’s response, keeping deaths and infections to the lowest level in Europe and enabling life to return pretty much to normal, limiting the hit to the economy.
This is the right move and one made all the more urgent by the threat of an upsurge of both Covid and flu in the autumn.
Critics say that such structural changes are disruptive and should not be made in the middle of a pandemic, but this is precisely the time to do so if the organisation charged with protecting us from infectious diseases is not up to the job.
The Telegraph View – August 19, 2020.