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Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday confirmed the institute will replace Public Health England, which has been widely criticised for its response to the COVID-19 emergency. To be headed by Tory peer Baroness Harding, the body will combine the coronavirus test-and-trace programme with a wider responsibility to protect the nation from emerging health threats. Mr Hancock said the move follows his concern the concentration on tackling the killer virus left the country vulnerable to other health threats.
“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.
“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 Health Secretary said in a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank in Westminster.
He added: “To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus and spotting and tackling other external health threats now and in the future, we need to bring together the science and the skill into one coherent whole.
“So, today, I am announcing that we are forming a new organisation, the National Institute for Health Protection.
“The National Institute for Health Protection will have a single and relentless mission: protecting people from external threats to this country’s health – external threats like biological weapons, pandemics and, of course, infectious diseases of all kinds.”
The effort to merge Public Health England (PHE) with NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biodiversity Centre will begin immediately, with the new organisation becoming formally operational next spring.
Mr Hancock said: “It will be dedicated to the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and external health threats, that’ll be its mission.
“It’s conceived amid crisis but it will help maintain vigilance for years to come.”
Mr Hancock added that the system would learn from South Korea and Germany’s Robert Koch Institute “where their health protection agencies have a huge, primary, focus on pandemic response”.
The Health Secretary had “every confidence” that the new organisation will be “world-renowned” and there was “no time to lose” in setting it up.
In a statement, Baroness Harding said: “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.”
Ministers were last night accused of using PHE as a scapegoat for the Government’s failings in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Richard Murray of The King’s Fund health charity, said: “PHE appears to have been found guilty without a trial.
“It is unclear what problem the government is hoping to solve by carving up PHE and redistributing its responsibilities.
“Undoubtedly, there are questions to be answered about England’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England’s public health agency.
“History is littered with reorganisations of the health system that are costly, time consuming and demoralising for staff.
“It is risky to undertake such a shakeup whilst the nation is still grappling with Covid-19, ahead of an anticipated winter spike in demand for health services and with the looming threat of a second wave of the virus.”
Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust think tank, said: “The Government risks making a major misstep by dismantling its own Public Health agency at such a crucial time, creating a huge distraction for staff who should be dedicating themselves to the next stage of the pandemic.”
Maggie Rae, the president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, added: “Whilst the new organisation will exist to protect the public from external threats to health, it is so important that we have an effective, well-resourced, public health system which will improve health as well as protect it.
“The Government needs to recognise the importance of all functions and domains of public health – not just health protection.”
Labour’s shadow public health minister Alex Norris said “The structural reorganisation that Matt Hancock has announced today is a desperate attempt to shift the blame after years of cutting public health budgets, when the real shift we need is towards an effective local test and trace system that delivers mass testing and case finding.
“Matt Hancock himself was responsible for Public Health England and in setting PHE’s priorities last year, ministers didn’t even mention preparing for a pandemic.
“This announcement gave no answers on what will happen to other vital areas of public health like addiction, obesity and sexual health either.
“We went into this pandemic with health inequalities widening and life expectancy going backwards for the poorest.
“We have seen that COVID-19 has thrived on these inequalities, disproportionately impacting the poorest and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
“A strong public health sector is needed more than ever.”
John O’Connell, the chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, welcomed the scrapping of Public Health England.
He said: “This is very welcome news for taxpayers, who for too long have propped up a nannying quango more interested in dictating diets than preparing for a pandemic.
“PHE’s woeful performance has signified the problems with our vast quango-state in which money is spent frivolously with little accountability.
“The National Institute for Health Protection must prioritise real health emergencies and ensure taxpayers get the maximum possible value for every pound spent.”
PHE chief Duncan Selbie was ousted in the shake, with NHS Business Service Authority head Michael Brodie appointed interim chief executive of the organisation during the merger.
Mr Selbie said it had been an “honour and a privilege” to lead the PHE.
He 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.”
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