Health Secretary Matt Hancock is planning to dissolve Public Health England and replace it with a new agency dedicated to responding to pandemics, according to reports.
The plan is to implement a new body modelled on the independent Robert Koch Institute in Germany, which has been held up as having done well in weathering COVID-19, in part at least because of a well-organised and large-scale testing programme early on.
PHE has come under fire during the crisis for failing to ramp up testing quickly enough and issues with its methods for counting deaths, for example including everyone who had tested positive even if they recovered or died of another cause.
The Sunday Telegraph suggested that PHE will be merged with the NHS Test and Trace service into a new Institute for Health Protection, with responsibility for other parts of its operations such as responding to rising levels of obesity handed to local authorities and doctors.
The move – which could be officially announced as soon as tomorrow in a speech by Hancock – has been met with anger by critics who say that the government is making PHE a scapegoat for its own failings in handling the coronavirus crisis.
The British Medical Association issued a statement saying that PHE “must not shoulder the blame for wider government decisions.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of BMA UK Council said: “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.”
PHE was only set up in 2013 by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and has civil service status so operates under direct ministerial control. In particular, it’s worth noting a controversial decision to halt community coronavirus testing and tracing in March was taken in consultation with ministers and government medical advisors.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said the problems with PHE are “ministerial failures whatever Tory MPs say”.
At the time PHE was set up, the government said its objective was to streamline public health advice and services and create a powerful single entity akin to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Public health experts – including chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty – have said that PHE has been affected by underfunding over recent years as a result of the government’s decade-long austerity drive, which has led to a big reduction in headcount.
The BBC says it has seen a leaked memo written by PHE head Duncan Selbie that says the new Institute will boost expertise and attract “much needed new investment.”