Matt Hancock to scrap 'failing' Public Health England

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to scrap Public Health England and replace it with a new German-style pandemic response agency.

It comes after growing frustration over how the health body has handled the coronavirus crisis, including a faulty methodology for counting fatalities which inflated the national death toll.

Hancock is set to announce merger of PHE’s pandemic response work with NHS test and trace into a new organisation called the National Institute for Health Protection, the Telegraph reports.

The new agency is thought to be based on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, while inspiration has also been taken from South Korea’s response to the pandemic. It is understood the Health Secretary wanted to allow enough time for the merger to be completed ahead of a potential surge of infections in autumn.

A source said the body will ‘be in place by September’. The body’s new chief executive will report to Hancock and England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, giving ministers direct control over how it handles the health crisis.

Delighted with the news was former cabinet member Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who said: ‘The one thing consistent about Public Health England is that almost everything it has touched has failed.’

Public Health England came under fire after it was revealed it was counting deaths of people diagnosed with coronavirus who had died of any cause after 28 days, eventually resulting in a change of system which knocked off 5,377 from the UK death toll.

The health body was also been criticised for having insufficient diagnostic tests available to track the spread of coronavirus early on in the outbreak.

Downing Street are also understood to have grown tired of the leadership of PHE’s chief executive Duncan Selbie, who is paid £190,000 per year for the role.

One source said it was ‘bizarre’ that he was barely seen in Number 10 while the nation’s Covid-19 strategy was being put together.

But Mr Selbie, who is expected to be booted out, told the Telegraph criticisms of PHE ‘does not do mass diagnostic testing’ and said there had been a ‘misunderstanding’ about this.

He added: ‘We operate national reference and research laboratories focused on novel and dangerous pathogens, and it was never at any stage our role to set the national testing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic. This responsibility rested with DHSC.’

He said PHE already serves as a dedicated Centre for Disease Control but claimed the organisation doesn’t have the funding to fight a full scale pandemic.

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