Whilst Owl will shed no tears over the demise of Public Health England, a spin-off of the disastrous 2012 Lansley reforms of Health and Social Care, it must not become a convenient scapegoat for the ultimate Government responsibility for Covid-19 response failures. – Owl
Public Health England (PHE) is to be scrapped and replaced by a new body specifically designed to protect the country against a pandemic by early next month, the Telegraph can disclose.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock will this week announce a merger of the pandemic response work of PHE with NHS Test and Trace into a new body, called the National Institute for Health Protection, modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute.
The Health Secretary, who returns to work after a UK holiday this week, wants to give PHE’s replacement time to be set up before a feared surge in coronavirus cases this autumn.
It comes weeks after Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, complained that the country’s response to the pandemic had been sluggish, in remarks which were interpreted as a swipe at PHE.
A senior minister told the Telegraph: “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.
“The National Institute for Health Protection’s goal will be simple: to ensure that Britain is one of the best equipped countries in the world to fight the pandemic.”
The institute’s new chief executive will report both to ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care, and to Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, giving ministers direct control over its response to pandemics.
Mr Hancock is seeking someone with experience of both health policy and the private sector to run it. Baroness Harding, the former chief executive of TalkTalk who heads up NHS Test and Trace, is tipped for the role.
The change will be “effective” within the next month but it will take until the spring to formally complete the organisational change of breaking up a large organisation.
A source said: “It will be in place by September.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory Cabinet minister, welcomed the news, saying: “The one thing consistent about Public Health England is that almost everything it has touched has failed.”
The new institute – which will have tens of thousands of staff – will bring together the science expertise at PHE, which first published the genome of Covid-19, with the scale of NHS Test and Trace operation.
The model for the new institute is the Robert Koch Institute in Germany. The independent agency played a central role in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, publishing daily situation reports that log new outbreaks, testing capacity and the current burden on the health system.
Approaches to tackling the crisis in South Korea have also provided evidence for Health officials in setting up the new body.
Over the next few months Test and Trace call centres will be wound down and replaced by local teams run by councils which are seen to be more effective and persistent at tracking down cases.
PHE’s work on tackling obesity will be handed over to local councils and family doctors, who are being encouraged increasingly to intervene to encourage fat people to lose weight.
In the medium term, the Health and Safety Executive, under its new chairman former Conservative MP Sarah Newton, will get a bigger role in assisting companies in getting more staff back to work.
PHE was originally set up in 2013 by then-Health secretary Jeremy Hunt as a result of an NHS shake-up organised by his predecessor Andrew Lansley.
The unprecedented challenge of the pandemic has exposed its weaknesses. Mr Hancock, who has been working on the overhaul for three months, had to take control of the Government’s testing strategy from PHE in March to scale up the numbers quickly.
One Government source said: “One of the many problems with PHE is that it has been spread too thin during the full pandemic.
“Instead of having an organisation that is constantly on alert for pandemics you have an organisation that has been concentrating on prevention of ill-health.”
There has also been a blame game in Whitehall with Health officials furious with PHE for counting all deaths from Covid-19, rather than just those within the first 28 days of contracting the virus, as in Scotland.
The body was also criticised for not having enough diagnostic testing capacity to properly track the progress of the epidemic in the early weeks of the outbreak.
Number 10 is understood to have become frustrated that PHE’s £190,000 a year chief executive Duncan Selbie, who is likely to be forced out under the changes, appeared reluctant to take a lead.
One source said he had rarely been seen in 10 Downing Street when the strategy was being set, despite the scale of the challenge facing the country, which the source said was “bizarre”.
However, in a statement to the Telegraph Mr Selbie said criticism of PHE over its handling of diagnostic testing was “based on a misunderstanding”.
He said: “The UK had no national diagnostic testing capabilities other than in the NHS at the outset of the pandemic. PHE does not do mass diagnostic testing.
“We operate national reference and research laboratories focussed on novel and dangerous pathogens, and it was never at any stage our role to set the national testing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic. This responsibility rested with DHSC.”
Asked if he saw merit in setting up a Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to tackle pandemics, Mr Selbie said: “PHE is already a dedicated CDC for infectious diseases and other hazards to health including chemicals and radiation. But we are not funded or scaled for a pandemic.
“PHE is currently working with the NHS and the Government to prepare for the challenges of the coming winter with an expanded flu vaccination programme and much improved data.
“The pandemic offers the opportunity to reset the balance between risk and investment and our focus is on getting this right.”