Matt Hancock has confirmed the government will axe Public Health England (PHE) and create a new national institute for health protection – despite the move being branded “irresponsible” during a pandemic.
The health secretary also revealed Baroness Dido Harding, the current head of NHS Test and Trace and a Conservative peer, will become interim head of the new organisation and is expected to start work “immediately”.
Mr Hancock said the new National Institute for Health Protection will have a “single and relentless mission” to protect the country from external threats, including infectious diseases, outbreaks 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,” he 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 for Health and Social Care said from Tuesday the new organisation will bring together PHE, NHS Test and Trace, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre under a single leadership team. It will also report to the health secretary and support the UK’s four chief medical officers.
But, the department added: “In order to minimise disruption to the vital work dealing with the pandemic, the organisation will be formalised and operating from spring 2021”.
The health secretary said: “To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection.
“The National Institute for Health Protection will bring together the expertise of PHE with the enormous response capabilities of NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to put is in the best possible position for the next stage of the fight against Covid-19 for the long-term.”
Mr Hancock also said Baroness Harding will lead the new organisation. The Conservative peer and former chief executive of Talk Talk was appointed earlier this year to lead the government’s contact tracing programme to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The scheme relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive coronavirus case and getting them to self-isolate, but it has faced criticism over its previously centralised structure and inability to reach many contacts.
Despite being described as a “world beating” system by Boris Johnson, the scheme has not yet rolled out a nationwide app that is crucial for tracking down strangers who have been in contact with person infected with the virus.
Established in 2013, PHE has been at the forefront of the coronavirus crisis and has a wide range of responsibilities, including preparing and responding to public health emergencies and encouraging the public to lead healthier lifestyles.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth said: “Last year ministers outlined PHE’s priorities. They didn’t mention preparing for a pandemic. A structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is time consuming, energy sapping. It’s risky indeed irresponsible.
“And what an insulting way to treat hardworking staff who heard about this from a pay walled Sunday newspaper leaving them with questions and worries about their jobs.”
Earlier this week Duncan Selbie, the organisation’s chief executive, apologised to staff that news of the demise of PHE was first briefed to the media. He said that no organisation could “get everything right” and praised staff for their efforts during the pandemic.
Mr Selbie added: “However, no one remotely close to our work of the past eight years, and since January on the pandemic would agree with the headlines that this change reflects ‘pandemic failure’ on our part,” he added. “Certainly this is not what the secretary of state believes or says in public or private.”
In a note to staff, seen by the Health Service Journal, he went on: “The prime minister and secretary of state wish to recreate an organisation with the sole focus on health protection and to bring together our health protection services with the budgets and people of the NHS test-and-trace programme to create a new national institute for health protection.
“The aim is to boost our unique scientific capability and world leading health protection expertise with much needed new investment.”