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Government scraps Public Health England

NHS Test and Trace boss Dido Harding will run a new National Institute of Health Protection dubbed “the best chance” of beating coronavirus by health secretary Matt Hancock

The government is creating a new organisation aimed to merge Public Health England with the NHS Test and Trace programme, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.

In a speech at the Policy Exchange today (18 August), Hancock announced that the government will scrap Public Health England (PHE) in favour of a new National Institute of Health Protection, which will be chaired by NHS Test and Trace executive chair Dido Harding.

Hancock said that from today: “PHE, the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) and NHS Test and Trace will operate under single leadership, reporting to Dido Harding, who will establish the NIHP and undertake the global search for its future leadership,” he said. “I have no doubt that under Baroness Harding we will found the NIHP as a thriving, mission-driven organisation.”

He added that it 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”.

“It will combine our world-class talent and science infrastructure with the growing response capabilities of NHS Test and Trace, and the sophisticated analytic capability we are building in the Joint Biosecurity Centre.”

He said although the UK has some of the best public health science in the world, “we did not go into this crisis with the capacity for a response to a once-in-a-century-scale event” like coronavirus.

“For example, even though we have some of the best labs in the world, we couldn’t call upon the large private sector diagnostics industry that some other countries were able to. As a result, we’ve had to respond at an unprecedented rate,” he said. “To build our testing capacity at scale, to build a contact tracing system of a size never envisioned before and to boost our analytical capability, through the Joint Biosecurity Centre.”

Best chance

He added that the creation of the new institute is our “best chance of beating this virus” as well as spotting and tackling other health threats.

As the leader of Test and Trace, Harding has come under fire recently for the programme, as the contact-tracing app has yet to launch and has so far fallen behind every launch target.

In June, the app took a sea change in its form and is now being developed using a decentralised data collection app model based on Google and Apple application programming interface (API) technology, and not the previous much-criticised centralised database structure that is still in test phase on the Isle of Wight.

Harding has described the app as a great step forward, even though she repeated previous disclaimers about there being no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus.

On being appointed the chair of the new body, Harding said the “changes announced today are designed to strengthen our response, and to radically ramp up our fight against this disease”.

“Combining the UK’s world-class public health talent and infrastructure with the new at-scale response capability of NHS Test and Trace into a single organisation puts us in the strongest position to stop the spread of the virus,” she said.

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The centre is based on centres in other countries, such as South Korea and the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, “where their health protection agencies have a huge, primary, focus on pandemic response”, according to Hancock.

The decision to appoint Harding as the chair of the new National Institute of Health Protection has been met with criticism from some.

Liberal Democrat spokesperson for health and care Munira Wilson spoke out on social media platform Twitter, saying that the creation of the new organisation is simply an attempt by ministers to “deflect responsibility for their shambolic management of the pandemic by a bureaucratic reorganisation, headed up by their mate who has made a storming success of Test and Trace”.

“We need to have total transparency in how appointments of this kind are made, rather than promoting a Tory insider who’s been responsible for the sub-par Test and Trace system. Matt Hancock: working alongside local directors of public health who have given us to boots on the ground to squash the outbreak,” she said on Twitter.

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