Government under fire over plans to ‘axe’ Public Health England


Ministers have been accused of seeking to deflect attention from their own handling of the coronavirus crisis after reports Public Health England (PHE) is to be broken up.

The Covid-19 response work of PHE is to be merged with NHS Test and Trace to form a new body designed specifically to deal with pandemics, according to The Sunday Telegraph.

Other aspects of its operations – such as tackling obesity – could be handed over to councils and family doctors, the paper said.

Scientists and NHS trusts said if ministers are unhappy with PHE's performance they have only themselves blame as it is directly under ministerial control.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is to announce a new Institute for Health Protection will become "effective" from next month, although the merger will take until next spring to complete.

It comes amid repeated reports ministers have been frustrated with PHE, with Boris Johnson complaining of the country's "sluggish" response to Covid-19 – a comment widely thought to have been aimed at the organisation.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, representing NHS trusts, said "years of underfunding" for PHE and public health more generally have left the country unprepared to deal with a pandemic.

He said unlike other health bodies such as NHS England, PHE – which replaced the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in 2013 under the Conservatives' NHS reorganisation -is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care.

"This gives ministers direct control of its activities," he said.

"So whilst it might be convenient to seek to blame PHE's leadership team, it is important that the Government reflect on its responsibilities as well."

His comments were echoed by Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor at the Institute of Health Informatics, University College London, who said the move is a "huge concern" in the midst of a global health crisis.

"If PHE has fallen short, responsibility lies firmly with the current Government and health ministers," he said.

"Rather than a rash restructuring, a sensible approach must involve a rapid enquiry to establish lessons learned for future waves and future pandemics."

HEALTH Coronavirus
HEALTH Coronavirus

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 does not provide much confidence for the future.

" PHE has had a 40% decrease in its budget so carving it up will just mean too little resource spread even further," she said.

"Producing this disruption in the middle of a pandemic is a complete diversion."

Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, poured scorn on suggestions Baroness Harding, the Conservative peer and former TalkTalk telecoms boss who heads Track and Trace, could head up the new body.

He said the idea "makes about as much sense as (chief medical officer) Chris Whitty being appointed the Vodafone head of branding and corporate image".

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."