Matt Hancock has confirmed the government will axe Public Health England (PHE) and create a new national institute for health protection – despite the move being branded “irresponsible” during a pandemic.
The health secretary also revealed Baroness Dido Harding, the current head of NHS Test and Trace and a Conservative peer, will become interim head of the new organisation and is expected to start work “immediately”.
Mr Hancock said the new National Institute for Health Protection will have a “single and relentless mission” to protect the country from external threats, including infectious diseases, outbreaks and biological weapons.
The Department of Health and Social Care said from Tuesday the new organisation will bring together PHE, NHS Test and Trace, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre under a single leadership team.
But, the department added: “In order to minimise disruption to the vital work dealing with the pandemic, the organisation will be formalised and operating from spring 2021”.
The health secretary said: “To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection.
“The National Institute for Health Protection will bring together the expertise of PHE with the enormous response capabilities of NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to put is in the best possible position for the next stage of the fight against Covid-19 for the long-term.”
Mr Hancock also said Baroness Harding will lead the new organisation. The Conservative peer and former chief executive of Talk Talk was appointed earlier this year to lead the government’s contact tracing programme to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The scheme relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive coronavirus case and getting them to self-isolate, but it has faced criticism over its previously centralised structure and inability to reach many contacts.
Despite being described as a “world beating” system by Boris Johnson, the scheme has not yet rolled out a nationwide app that is crucial for tracking down strangers who have been in contact with person infected with the virus.