Heat on Public Health England as Prime Minister admits coronavirus response was 'sluggish'

Gordon Rayner
Boris Johnson: 'We owe that discussion and that honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time, to the families who have lost loved ones' - Paul Ellis/AFP
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Public Health England's (PHE) future has been thrown into doubt after the Prime Minister suggested that parts of the Government's response to the coronavirus crisis had been "sluggish".

In a speech ahead of the country's 100th day in lockdown, Boris Johnson described his frustration at failing to quickly confront elements of the pandemic as being "like a recurring bad dream".

He did not name PHE, but Whitehall sources indicated on Tuesday night that they believed the Prime Minister was referring to the agency, after he had privately criticised its response in meetings with Conservative MPs.

The quango is responsible for testing, and the decision to abandon widespread tracking of the virus as it began to spread is regarded by most scientists as the key mistake in Britain's handling of the pandemic, which has led to the country recording the highest number of deaths in Europe.

The agency on Tuesday was once again at the forefront of a public row after ministers ordered the lockdown of Leicester following a new outbreak. Council leaders expressed frustration at the lack of data and detailed information on cases in the city after infections started to rise over the past fortnight.

Leicester has been plunged back into lockdown after an eruption of cases in the city - Shutterstock

In the speech, Mr Johnson said: "I know that there are plenty of things that people say and will say that we got wrong, and we owe that discussion and that honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time, to the families who have lost loved ones, and of course there must be time to learn the lessons, and we will."

He said that while waiting for "the full economic reverberations" to become clear: "We must use this moment to plan our response, and fix the problems that were most brutally illuminated in that Covid lightning flash.

"The problems in our social care system, the parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won't move."

A former Tory health minister said: "I think PHE is destined for the chop, and the main issue is why we didn't ramp up testing sooner", while a senior Tory MP said Mr Johnson should "abolish it tomorrow".

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, said: "I would abolish PHE tomorrow. What this has shown is that if ministers are to take responsibility for things they must also have control, and they don't have control over PHE.

"It has made all sorts of decisions that have puzzled people, like insisting on setting up an app from scratch, which is just arrogance laced with incompetence."

Whitehall sources said PHE had been "too slow" in its responses and forced the government to take over some of its functions and set up new bodies. Sources said the test and trace service had to be taken out of PHE's hands, while the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which determines the Covid alert level, had been set up specifically to do a job PHE should have been doing.

One government source said: "Once we have put coronavirus behind us it seems pretty certain there will be some changes."

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PHE, which was set up by Jeremy Hunt as health secretary to advise the Government on public health issues, is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care. In May, Mr Johnson told the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs he was planning a review of "a number of institutions" once the crisis was over.

The Telegraph understands that the Treasury is reviewing whether plans to establish a new PHE headquarters in Harlow, Essex, should go ahead.

Asked about the Prime Minister's plans for PHE's future, a Downing Street spokesman defended the body's response to the pandemic.

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Mr Johnson made the comments in a speech setting out his vision for post-Covid Britain, in which he outlined a "New Deal" to restart the economy with £640 billion of investment over the next five years.

Downing Street is increasingly focusing on the next phase of the coronavirus crisis, and the Chancellor will follow the Prime Minister's speech with his own intervention next week. However, there is growing discussion within government about whether a rapid inquiry into aspects of the official response needs to be conducted over the summer, to enable any changes to be made before any possible second wave later in the year.

PHE was blamed for holding back the government's testing programme by refusing offers of help from private laboratories and insisting on doing testing in-house, and then ending the test and trace programme which had been so successful in other countries. It was also criticised for its handling of antibody testing and shared the blame for the chaotic quarantine policy.