Matt Hancock’s plans to scrap Public Health England (PHE) is a “desperate attempt at blame shifting” for the government’s coronavirus failings, critics have said.
The government has been accused of trying to “scapegoat” the organisation for their own failings in dealing with the pandemic after reports emerged that the health secretary will announce this week the axing of PHE.
The body will be replaced by a “German-style pandemic response agency” modelled on the Robert Koch Institute, reports the Telegraph. NHS Test and Trace will also be merged into the new body to be called the National Institute for Health Protection.
The prime minister has complained for weeks about the sluggish response to the coronavirus, “in remarks which were seen as a swipe at PHE”, Boris Johnson’s former newspaper employer states.
PHE is victim of Tory cuts to health budget
Downing Street and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have not denied the plans to axe PHE and Labour has demanded “urgent clarity” about the widely reported, but still officially unconfirmed plan.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth told the Mirror that the “desperate attempts at blame shifting won’t succeed” and that ministers “need to explain why a time-consuming structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is helpful.”
He added: “PHE could have been better prepared if the Tories hadn’t spent years cutting public health budgets and then outsourcing much of the testing and tracing response on this pandemic.”
‘Testing, tracing, PPE, care homes and lockdown are ministerial failures’
Ashworth continued: “And where does this leave other important health prevention priorities for example on sexual health services, drug and alcohol services and obesity that PHE carries out?”
He added: “Ministers are responsible for Public Health England so desperate attempts at blame shifting won’t succeed. Ultimately government deficiencies on testing, tracing, PPE, care homes and lockdown are ministerial failures.”
A spokesperson for the DHSC said PHE “have played an integral role” in the “national response” to this “unprecedented global pandemic” and that the government has “always been clear” the “right lessons from the crisis” must be learned.
A “senior minister” quoted by the Telegraph said the aim is “to bring together the science and the scale in one new body” ahead of a potential second spike this autumn.
The minister added: “The National Institute for Health Protection’s goal will be simple: to ensure that Britain is one of the best equipped countries in the world to fight the pandemic.”
‘We should not scapegoat PHE for the failures in the system’
Senior health figures – including the president of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM)- have described the move as an attempt by the government to blame PHE for its errors and evade scrutiny by doing so when Parliament is not sitting.
The RSM’s Prof Sir Simon Wesley 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.
“Perhaps we do need a more joined-up structure, but we should not scapegoat PHE for the failures in the system in which they are but one cog.”
The chief executive of NHS Providers Chris Hopson said PHE’s underfunding and particularly the 25% cut to the wider health budget in England since 2015, had impacted on the country’s response to the pandemic.
Hancock’s plan is ‘foolhardy in the extreme’
Hopson said ministers have “direct control” of PHE’s “activities” and added: “So whilst it might be convenient to seek to blame PHE’s leadership team, it is important that the government reflects on its responsibilities as well.”
The Independent Sage group of scientists and pandemic experts said Hancock’s plan to scrap PHE would be “foolhardy in the extreme” in the middle of a pandemic while the Guardian quotes a “senior figure at PHE” who said: “It is just not right nor fair to pin all blame like this. We wouldn’t claim to have got everything right – who can? – but we don’t operate unilaterally from the chief medical officer or ministers.
“The issue that needs resolving is investment – [a] proper budget, [and] significant investment in public health labs/science.”
Chair of the British Medical Association’s ruling council Dr Chaand Nagpaul echoed the comments of his peers and was adamant that “we must absolutely not allow PHE and its staff to shoulder the blame for wider failings and government decisions.”
Dido Harding –the right choice to head NIHP?
Baroness Dido Harding – already controversially appointed as head of NHS Test and Trace – is tipped to head the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) that will replace PHE.
Harding, the former CEO of telecommunications firm TalkTalk, became chair of NHS Improvement in 2017 and is the wife of Tory MP John Penrose who has been “linked to a right-wing group calling for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system”.
A senior research fellow in global health at Southampton university, Dr Michael Head, questioned the proposed appointment of Harding to head the NIHP, saying it made “about as much sense as [chief medical officer] Chris Whitty being appointed the Vodafone head of branding and corporate image.”