Public Health England ‘set to be axed’ over response to COVID-19 pandemic

Public Health England (PHE) is set to be scrapped and replaced with a unit that will specifically deal with pandemics, it has been reported.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to announce the move later this week, and will merge the NHS Test and Trace scheme with the work done by PHE on the coronavirus response, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

The overhaul comes after repeated reports that ministers have been frustrated and unhappy with the way PHE, which was created by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2013, has dealt with the coronavirus crisis.

The government adopted a new way of counting daily deaths from COVID-19 after concerns were raised that the method used by PHE officials overstated them.

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Responding to the Sunday Telegraph report, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Public Health England have 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.”

Doctor and broadcaster Dr Phil Hammond tweeted: “@PHE_uk is under direct control of @MattHancock. If it has failed, he has failed. The National Institute for Health Protection is simply the Health Protection Agency we used to have before it was merged into @PHE_uk in 2012 with 40% budget cuts. Hancock will still be in charge.”

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The new body will be called the Institute for Health Protection and will become “effective” next month, but will not be fully complete until the spring, the paper said.

It is said to be based on a similar model in Germany, which used an independent agency to take control of the country’s response to the pandemic.

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Baroness Dido Harding, the Conservative peer who is currently heading up Test and Trace, is being tipped to run the new department.

“We want to bring together the science and the scale in one new body so we can do all we can to stop a second coronavirus spike this autumn,” a senior minister told the Sunday Telegraph.

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Meanwhile, Test and Trace call centres are set to be wound down over the next few months, and replaced with local teams run by councils, like the system put in place in Sandwell, in the West Midlands.

It comes after more lockdown measures across England were lifted, with casinos, ice rinks and spa treatments able to operate again.

PHE is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care but has operational autonomy and its own chief executive, Duncan Selbie.

Its creation in 2013 brought together public health specialists from more than 70 organisations into a single service.

PHE now employs the equivalent of 5,500 full-time staff, made up mostly of scientists, researchers and public health professionals.

It has eight local centres across England’s regions, as well as one in London.

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