New health security agency set up to tackle future pandemics

Jane Kirby and Laura Parnaby, PA
·3-min read

A new organisation is being set up with the aim of halting future pandemics.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will launch on April 1, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced.

He told a briefing hosted by the Local Government Association that “UKHSA must plan, it must prevent and it must respond. UKHSA must be ready”.

He said: “UKHSA, as it will be known, will be this country’s permanent standing capacity to plan, prevent and respond to external threats to health…

“UKHSA will work with partners around the world and lead the UK’s global contribution to health security research.

“Next, UKHSA will be tasked to prevent external threats to health, deploying the full might of our analytic and genomic capability on infectious diseases… in all, helping to cast a protective shield over the nation’s health.

“Even after years without a major public health threat, UKHSA must be ready, not just to do the science, but to respond at unbelievable pace.”

He said the agency will hire the “very best team possible from around the world” and will be led by deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, who will be its chief executive.

Mr Hancock said the agency must “vigilant, dynamic and confident”.

He added: “This isn’t just an agency, it’s job is to provide professional leadership here and around the world.”

UKHSA replaces the National Institute for Health Protection, which was established in August, with Baroness Dido Harding as its interim chairwoman. She will step down to make way for the new agency.

It also brings together Public Health England (PHE), NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC).

Jenny Harries
Dr Jenny Harries will be UKSA chief executive (PA)

At the same briefing, Baroness Harding, who is head of NHS Test and Trace, said more Britons downloaded the Zoom app than the Test and Trace app last year.

She said: “(NHS Test and Trace) was the second-most downloaded app in the country last year, only after Zoom, and slightly ahead of Tiktok… 21 million people downloaded the app.”

In a statement, Mr Hancock said: “The UKHSA will be this country’s permanent standing capacity to plan, prevent and respond to external threats to health.

“It will bring together our capabilities from the scientific excellence embodied by the likes of Dr Susan Hopkins and her amazing colleagues in clinical public health, to the extraordinary capability of NHS Test and Trace, which Dido Harding has built so effectively over the last nine months, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC).

“Dr Jenny Harries brings huge local, regional and national experience to the role and is perfectly placed to help us not only learn lessons from the Covid-19 response, but to keep us in a state of readiness, primed to respond to infectious diseases and other external health threats.

“I want everybody at UKHSA, at all levels, to wake up every day with a zeal to plan for the next pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the world-leading capabilities of the country’s public health science, and it has also shown the challenges of protecting the nation’s health are changing at an unprecedented pace, as new types of threats emerge.”

Dr Harries said: “The UKHSA will be agile in its responses, maximise the benefits of high quality data, be relentless in its mission to rapidly identify and respond to new threats whilst working seamlessly with academia, scientists, industry and local communities.”

Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said public health teams in councils looked forward to working with the agency.

He added: “The UKHSA needs to be able to operate nationally as a global player to major health threats.

“This needs to be aligned with councils’ ability to react swiftly on the ground, using their local knowledge, expertise and skills.”