The Government is to press ahead with controversial plans to break up Public Health England (PHE), the Health Secretary has announced.
Matt Hancock said that the Covid-19 response work of PHE is to be merged with NHS Test and Trace and some of the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre to form a new body designed specifically to deal with pandemics and other health threats.
Tory peer Dido Harding is to be interim executive chairwoman of the new National Institute for Health Protection.
The Government has faced criticism over the prospect of breaking up the PHE, which was established in 2013 under Conservative health reforms, in the middle of a pandemic.
Ministers have also been accused of using PHE as a “scapegoat” for other failings in the crisis.
In a speech at the think tank Policy Exchange, Mr Hancock said the new organisation would have a “single and relentless mission” of protecting people from external health threats including pandemics, biological weapons and infections diseases.
Setting out his plans for a shake-up of the public health system, Mr Hancock said: “The changes that I am announcing today are designed entirely to strengthen our response.
Speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank, said: “We are making the change now because we must do everything we can to fulfil our responsibilities to the public, to strengthen public health in the UK.”
Mr Hancock added: “To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus and spotting and tackling other external health threats now and in the future, we need to bring together the science and the skill into one coherent whole.
“So, today, I am announcing that we are forming a new organisation, the National Institute for Health Protection.
“The National Institute for Health Protection 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.”
Mr Hancock said the new institute will play a role across the UK and be dedicated “to the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and external health threats”.
He said: “The National Institute for Health Protection will also work closely with the devolved administrations, taking on existing UK-wide responsibilities and supporting all four chief medical officers with access to the best scientific and analytical advice.
“By bringing these parts of the system together, we can get more than the sum of the parts.
“And the mission, that mission, is for a purpose, so we have a stronger, more joined-up response to protect people and the communities in which they live.
“It will be dedicated to the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and external health threats, that’ll be its mission.
“It’s conceived amid crisis but it will help maintain vigilance for years to come.”
Mr Hancock said the National Institute for Health Protection will combine the existing “talent and science infrastructure” with NHS Test and Trace and the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
He added: “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.
“Of course, these institutions work incredibly closely today, but I want that integration to be seamless.
“Crucially, this will be a national institution that works very much locally, working with local directors of public health and their teams who are, in my opinion, the unsung heroes of health protection.”
Talking of desperate blame shifting Matt Hancock will attempt that re Public Health England – a body he is responsible for & who take direction from him.
Last year ministers outlined PHE’s priorities. They didn’t mention preparing for a pandemic…https://t.co/MneWJJE7qo
— Jonathan Ashworth 😷 (@JonAshworth) August 18, 2020
The announcement comes after Labour criticised plans to break up PHE in the middle of a pandemic as “irresponsible” and “risky”.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said that structural reorganisation is “time consuming” and “energy sapping”.
In a series of scathing tweets, Mr Ashworth said the Government was trying to “shift the blame”.