Senior doctors, hospital bosses and public health experts have accused ministers of scapegoating Public Health England for their own failings over Covid-19 by planning to axe the agency.
The government’s decision to scrap PHE and merge it into a new body charged with preventing future outbreaks of infectious diseases produced a chorus of criticism on Sunday.
Ministers are frustrated with PHE over the testing of samples of suspected coronavirus, tracing of contacts of those who have become infected, and the way it counts Covid-related deaths.
However, a succession of senior health figures have claimed the move, made while parliament is not sitting, is an attempt by Boris Johnson’s administration to shift the blame for its own failings during the pandemic.
They claimed that ministers were exaggerating PHE’s errors and importance in order to distract attention from the fact that they and not the agency made key mistakes in the early weeks of fighting a pandemic that has so far claimed more than 65,000 lives.
Prof Sir Simon Wessely, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine and a former adviser to the government, said: “PHE employs some of the best, brightest and most hardworking clinicians and experts we have. There are simply not enough of them, which can partly be explained by the steady reduction in funding over the last seven years.
“Perhaps we do need a more joined-up structure, but we should not scapegoat PHE for the failures in the system in which they are but one cog.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of the hospital body NHS Providers, defended PHE and pointed out that the government’s underfunding of the agency, and the 25% cut since 2015 to the wider public health budget in England, had limited the UK’s ability to respond effectively to Covid-19.
He pointed out that PHE is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), unlike other health bodies such as NHS England and the Care Quality Commission. He said: “This gives ministers direct control of its activities. So whilst it might be convenient to seek to blame PHE’s leadership team, it is important that the government reflects on its responsibilities as well.”
Pointing the finger at the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and other ministers, Hopson added: “The government’s strategy in the early stages of the pandemic in key areas of PHE’s responsibility such as testing was flawed and confusing. Ministers, not PHE officials, were driving that strategy, directing the response and allocating resources accordingly.”
A senior figure at PHE, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian: “It is just not right nor fair to pin all blame like this. We wouldn’t claim to have got everything right – who can? – but we don’t operate unilaterally from the chief medical officer or ministers. The issue that needs resolving is investment – [a] proper budget, [and] significant investment in public health labs/science.”
The Sunday Telegraph, which revealed the plan, said ministers intend to merge PHE with NHS Test and Trace, which is run by the private firm Serco, to form a new body called the National Institute for Health Protection.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association’s ruling council, questioned the government’s wisdom: “We must absolutely not allow PHE and its staff to shoulder the blame for wider failings and government decisions. With more than 1,000 new UK cases of Covid-19 being recorded for the fifth day in a row, we must seriously question whether now is the right time for undertaking such a seemingly major restructure and detract from the very immediate need to respond to the pandemic.”
The businesswoman and former Talk Talk boss Baroness Harding, the head of NHS test and trace and of the regulator NHS Improvement, whose husband is the Conservative MP John Penrose, is tipped to run the new institute.
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, responded to that speculation, saying: “There are reports suggesting former telecoms executive Dido Harding will be given the role of overseeing the new institute, which makes about as much sense as [chief medical officer] Chris Whitty being appointed the Vodafone head of branding and corporate image.”
Prof John Ashton, a former regional director of public health, said: “You don’t do this in the middle of a crisis, and certainly not put Dido in charge when she has been such a disaster with test and trace.” NHS Test and Trace has been criticised for contributing to the recent increase in cases of coronavirus by tracing too few people who have tested positive and tracking down too few of their contacts, so that those involved can be told to isolate.
PHE’s potential abolition has been an open secret in Whitehall for months. Boris Johnson had the agency in mind when he referred in June to how parts of government had been “sluggish” in their response when the pandemic struck in March.
A spokesperson for the DHSC did not rebut the report that PHE will be scrapped. They simply said: “Public Health England has 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.”