Matt Hancock has announced that that Public Health England is to be replaced with a new ‘German-style’ pandemic response agency, called the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).
Heath Secretary Matt Hancock said that the forming of a new public body, the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), brings together Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace from 18 August.
Speaking at the announcement, Mr Hancock said: “The National Institute for Health Protection will have a single and relentless mission, protecting people from threats to this country’s health.”
“It will report directly to ministers and support the clinical leadership of the chief medical officers and will be dedicated to the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and external health threats.”
The news means that Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace will now operate under a single leadership, headed up by interim Executive Chair, Conservative peer Baroness Dido Harding.
Mr Hancock said that NIHP: “Brings together the science and the scale, to give us the best chance of beating this virus and of spotting and tackling other external heath threats, now and in the future.”
“It will combine our world class talent and sciences infrastructure with the growing response capabilities of NHS Test & Trace and the sophisticated analytical capabilities that we’re building in the joint bio-security centre.”
Baroness Harding will report to both to ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care, and to Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer.
The fast-track abolishment of Publish Health England allows NIHP to be prepared should a second wave of the virus hit the UK. Mr Hancock said: “The changes that I am announcing today are designed to strengthen our response. We must do everything we can to fulfil our responsibilities to the public and to strengthen public health in the UK.”
Mr Hancock added that his “single biggest fear” was a novel flu or another major health alert deepening the current public health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need a disease control infrastructure that gives us a permanent standing capacity to respond as a nation,” he said.
“We need an institution whose only job is to look out with constant vigilance to prepare for and respond to external threats like a pandemic.”
Focus on rigorous science-led approach to public health protection;
Boost the UK’s ability to deal with and recover from COVID-19 and meet health challenges of the coming winter;
Be formalised and be operating from spring 2021.
Improvement of public health
Mr Hancock also said he would consult on how the improvement of public health could be embedded in the health system, noting that obesity had been linked to an increased risk from COVID-19.
“Of course, the two are linked, protection and prevention, we’ve seen how conditions like obesity can increase the risk for those who have coronavirus,” he said.
“We will use this moment to consult widely on how we can embed health improvement more deeply across the board and I’ll be saying more on this over the coming weeks.
“This will in turn allow the National Institute for Health Protection to focus, focus, focus on the science and the scale needed for pandemic response.”
The decision to get rid of Public Health England has been criticised by several senior doctors, hospital bosses and public health experts, who feel PHE has been scapegoated by the government.
Baroness Dido Harding, Interim Executive Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, said: “The fantastic teams in PHE, NHS Test and Trace and in local authorities have done so much over the past eight months, and I thank them all for their service now and in the future.
“PHE has worked incredibly well with NHS Test and Trace, and with winter ahead, the life-saving work we are doing is more important than ever.
“The changes announced today are designed to strengthen our response, and to radically ramp up our fight against this disease, whilst also protecting PHE’s essential work beyond COVID that is so important for the nation’s health.”
Duncan Selbie, outgoing PHE Chief Executive, said: “I could not be any prouder of what PHE has achieved since 2013 in protecting the country from infectious diseases and environmental hazards and in improving the health of the people from reduced smoking rates to tackling poor air quality and obesity and much else.
“PHE’s work on the pandemic in the early stages and since stands testament to the professionalism and unremitting hard work of my colleagues and bought precious time for the NHS and government to prepare.
“It has been the honour and privilege of my career to lead PHE.”