The government’s decision to scrap Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic risks undermining the Covid-19 response, the UK’s top doctor has warned.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said health secretary Matt Hancock’s last-minute reorganisation risked “losing some very, very talented people” and that its timing was “not good”.
His comments were echoed by Professor Jo Martin, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, who said staff were “all in the middle of coping with infection control changes, dealing with patients, and dealing with the fallout of the pandemic” and that the change would leave them concerned about their future.
The health secretary said on Wednesday that the major reorganisation was “absolutely the best thing to do and the best thing to do right now”, adding: “I don’t accept that there will be disruption.”
But speaking to MPs from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Prof Goddard said: “I think the timing though is not good. We’re still in the middle of this pandemic and to think about a reorganisation of the systems right now is probably not right.
“I’d also take the opportunity to say that the staff within PHE have worked above and beyond completely over the past months.
“Many have worked seven-day weeks, 16-hour days, and I think that the announcement about all of this will just undermine them. We risk losing some very, very talented people if we’re not careful. So it needs to be managed very carefully.”
Speaking at the same hearing, Prof Martin added: “I think the timing is interesting. Our microbiologists, many of whom work with PHE, our virologists, our immunologists, are all in the middle of coping with infection control changes, dealing with patients, and dealing with the fallout of the pandemic. Many of them hold joint positions with PHE and they are very worried. This is difficult timing, I would agree entirely.
“PHE staff have been astonishing. They have worked absolutely; creating evidence, gathering evidence, and any time of the day or night if I wanted to know something there would be somebody in PHE who would respond to that.
“Groups created, information sharing, and the willingness to really go above and beyond has really been admirable, absolutely admirable. I couldn’t fault the personal dedication of the staff of PHE during this time.”
The comments echo warnings by other health experts. On Tuesday, Richard Murray, the chief executive of The King’s Fund, said PHE “appears to have been found guilty without a trial” for problems with the coronavirus response. He said it was unclear what problem ministers were hoping to solve by redistributing the body’s responsibilities.
Ministers have also been accused by critics of trying to deflect blame on to government agencies and away from themselves. The decision to appoint Baroness Dido Harding, who oversaw the flagging test-and-trace programme, to lead PHE’s replacement has also raised concerns.