Public Health England faces axe after poor response to pandemic

Public Health England (PHE) is to be replaced by a new agency whose priority will be to deal with protecting the country from pandemics, according to a report.

The government’s decision to scrap PHE and merge it into a new body that will help prevent

future outbreaks of infectious diseases has faced a lot of criticism.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine and a former adviser to the government, said: “PHE employs some of the best, brightest and most hardworking clinicians and experts we have. There are simply not enough of them, which can partly be explained by the steady reduction in funding over the last seven years."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will this week announce a new body modelled on Germany's Robert Koch Institute, it has been reported.

The Sunday Telegraph, which revealed the plan, said ministers intend to merge PHE with NHS Test and Trace, which is run by the private firm Serco, to form a new body called the National Institute for Health Protection.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson 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."

The Robert Koch Institute, which the new body will reportedly be based on, is an independent agency that has taken control of Germany's response to the pandemic.

Earlier this month, the government brought in a new way of counting daily coronavirus deaths in England following concerns that the method used by PHE overstated them.

PHE’s potential abolition has been an open secret in Whitehall for months. Boris Johnson had the agency in mind when he referred in June to how parts of government had been “sluggish” in their response when the pandemic struck in March.

The prime minister has also said the country's response to Covid-19 could have been done "differently" and the government needed to learn lessons.

Decisions in March were made in collaboration with ministers and the chief medical and scientific advisers. Sources point out that PHE was never set up to be a body responsible for mass community testing and that what's needed now is an organisation fully focused on pandemic planning.

A full examination of who is responsible and culpable for which policies will have to wait for an independent inquiry.

PHE was created in 2013 - as part of an overhaul of the NHS in England under former health secretary Jeremy Hunt - with responsibilities including preparing and responding to health-related emergencies such as pandemics.

John Ashton, a former regional director of public health in north-west England, said PHE has had "a bad pandemic" but criticised the government's reported plans to scrap the organisation.