Matt Hancock is risking a “major misstep” by axing Public Health England in the midst of a pandemic which lacks justification and could demoralise officials working to protect the country, experts have warned.
As the health secretary unveiled a new national health body, critics claimed the government was attempting to “shift the blame” after years of cuts to public health budgets and scapegoat the organisation over the response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Mr Hancock said the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) will have a “single and relentless mission” to protecting UK citizens from external threats to the country’s health, including infectious diseases, pandemics and biological weapons.
“My single biggest fear is a novel flu, or another major health alert, hitting us right now in the middle of this battle against coronavirus,” the cabinet minister said at the Policy Exchange think tank.
“Even once this crisis has passed – and it will pass – we need a disease control infrastructure that gives us the permanent, standing capacity to respond as a nation and the ability to scale up at pace.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said the new body will get to work “immediately” but added: “In order to minimise disruption to the vital work dealing with the pandemic, the organisation will be formalised and operating from spring 2021.”
But the cabinet minister came under fire from health experts who questioned the necessity of dismantling the country’s major public health body – created in 2013 – amid fears of a second wave of the coronavirus. Opposition parties also accused the government of seeking to “deflect blame” for failings during the pandemic.
Richard Murray, the chief executive of the think The King’s Fund, said PHE “appears to have been found guilty without a trial” and said it was unclear what problem ministers were hoping to solve by redistributing the body’s responsibilities.
“Undoubtedly, there are questions to be answered about England’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England’s public health agency,” he said.
Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, added: “The government risks making a major misstep by dismantling its own public health agency at such a crucial time, creating a huge distraction for staff who should be dedicating themselves to the next stage of the pandemic.
“There is no clear argument as to why this rebranding and reshuffling will solve some of the problems highlighted by the secretary of state today.”
Dr Jennifer Dixon, the chief executive of the Health Foundation, also said: “Setting up and abolishing or merging national agencies like PHE is all too common, and frequently demoralising, wasteful and lacking justification.
“PHE has been in place for only seven years, whereas the Robert Koch Institute in Germany (on which the new agency is apparently modelled) for over 125 years. If the government wants a longer term focus on health protection in an agency, it must examine its own actions in reducing the stability and resilience of national public bodies over the years.”
The health secretary said the new body will bring together PHE, NHS Test and Trace, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre and revealed it will be initially led by Baroness Dido Harding, who has been criticised for failings over the effectiveness and centralised nature of the NHS Test and Trace programme.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus said the lack of public scrutiny or transparency over Baroness Harding’s appointment was “appalling”, adding: “This decision should have been debated and scrutinised in parliament, instead it was announced at a right-wing think tank without a single question from the media.
“Given we still don’t have an effect test, trace and isolate system, this seems like a reward for failure. The health secretary has undermined public trust in this new agency before it’s even been launched. Serious questions must be answered over the timing of this decision at a time we should be focused on preparing for a potential second wave.”
Labour highlighted the announcement gave no answers on what will happen to PHE’s other responsibilities, including tackling the country’s obesity crisis, addiction and sexual health.
“The structural reorganisation that Matt Hancock has announced today is a desperate attempt to shift the blame after years of cutting public health budgets, when the real shift we need is towards an effective local test and trace system that delivers mass testing and case finding,” said shadow public health minister Alex Norris.
Later, Mr Hancock admitted the details of the break of up of the body’s responsibilities were still being worked out, telling the BBC: “We are going to set out in the coming weeks where the other responsibilities of Public Health England are being exercised.”