Public Health England scrapped – can the new org handle the pandemic?

31 August 2020

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Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that the government is scrapping Public Health England (PHE) – the body responsible for the UK’s response to COVID-19 – and replacing it with the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).

It’s a controversial decision, so we asked you what you thought of it in this week’s poll – and 54% of you came out in favour of the move, with only 15% against and 30% in between.

Why is PHE being scrapped?

The government formed PHE in 2013 as part of a set of health reforms. Intended to reduce health inequalities and boost health and wellbeing in the UK, PHE was an “executive agency” directly controlled by ministers from the Department of Health and Social Care.

However, the agency struggled with an ever-decreasing budget and a disparate mishmash of responsibilities, from health protection to preventative strategies like reducing obesity. When the pandemic hit, the already-strained organisation reached breaking point, and several MPs voiced complaints about its management of the crisis.

Rumours have been circulating for weeks that Boris Johnson and his ministers were not happy with PHE’s testing and tracing of suspected coronavirus cases, especially in the early days of the pandemic. So the decision to axe PHE didn’t come as a complete shock.

What will the replacement do?

Hancock described the new NIHP as having “a single and relentless mission - protecting people from external threats to this country’s health”. According to the health secretary, it will focus on investigating and preventing threats like pandemics and other infectious diseases, as well as deliberate biological attacks.

In the immediate, that means taking charge of Britain’s response to COVID-19, including improving the NHS Test and Trace system and increasing testing capacity.

Tory peer Dido Harding will be stepping in as the chair of the NIHP. This appointment has sparked controversy because it was Harding who oversaw the troubled Test and Trace scheme for PHE.

While the NIHP will be a nationwide body, it will work with directors of public health from local councils, and with the governments of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. This is a big change from PHE, which only covered England.

It’s not yet clear who’ll be handling PHE’s other responsibilities, like tackling smoking, obesity and health inequalities. But we do know that the NIHP will be starting work immediately on Britain’s response to the pandemic.

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