Public Health England has been scrapped less than six months after the COVID-19 pandemic began as the government announced it would be ‘brought together’ with the NHS test and trace programme and the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre.
The sweeping changes to public health leadership in the UK have brought sharp criticism from health experts – with the BMA warning that Public Health England must not be blamed for ‘wider failings and government decisions’.
Former Conservative MP for Totnes Dr Sarah Wollaston, a GP and former health select committee chair, said on Twitter that the decision to scrap PHE was ‘extraordinary’.
She wrote: ‘Public Health England is the only bit of the health service directly under govt control as an executive agency. Seeking to scapegoat them is extraordinary after cutting public health funding for years & excluding local directors of public health from decion making on COVID-19.’
The government has announced that the merger of PHE with NHS test and trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre will be finalised from spring 2021. However, the new National Institute for Health Protection will ‘start work immediately’ under the leadership of Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding.
The government said the new organisaiotn would be ‘focused on tackling COVID-19 and protecting the nation’s health’, and that it will ‘support local directors of public health and local authorities on the frontline of the COVID-19 response’.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection and resilience.
‘The National Institute for Health Protection will bring together the expertise of PHE with the enormous response capabilities of NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to put us in the best possible position for the next stage of the fight against COVID-19 and for the long-term.
Baroness Dido Harding said: ‘Combining the UK’s world-class public health talent and infrastructure with the new at-scale response capability of NHS Test and Trace into a single organisation puts us in the strongest position to stop the spread of the virus.’
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of BMA UK Council 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.
‘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.’
He added that with significant numbers of new cases of coronavirus continuing to be recorded, ‘we must seriously question whether now is the right time for undertaking such a seemingly major restructure’.
Nick Bostock – GP Online – August 18, 2020.