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Sat, 24 October 2020

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Number 10 says Whitehall needs to be ‘fit to cope’ with future pandemics amid reports Public Health England facing the axe

Number 10 says Whitehall needs to be ‘fit to cope’ with future pandemics amid reports Public Health England facing the axe

NHS Test and Trace boss Dido Harding is being tipped to head up the new organisation. (PA)

2 min read

Downing Street has said Whitehall needs to be “fit to cope” with future pandemics amid reports Public Health England will be scrapped and replaced after criticism of its handling of Covid-19.

Number 10 said it was important to “learn the right lessons” from the coronavirus crisis after it was reported this weekend that the under-fire body will be merged with the NHS Test and Trace programme to form a new National Institute for Health Protection.

PHE was only set up in 2013 as part of a major reorganisation of the NHS in England under the Conservative-led coalition government. 

Part of the rationale for that shake-up was to devolve power away from ministers.

But PHE has faced criticism for its response to the pandemic, with former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith telling The Sunday Telegraph, which first reported on the plans, that “almost everything it has touched has failed”.

Boris Johnson meanwhile used a major speech in June to take aim at “parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly” to the crisis, in remarks that were widely interpreted as being about PHE.

Pressed on the reports the body is set for the chop, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson on Monday said: “We’ve always said we must learn the right lessons from the crisis and act to ensure government structures are fit to cope. 

“PHE have played an integral role in our response to this unprecedented pandemic, working on important issues such as protection, surveillance, contact tracing and testing.”

Asked whether it was wise to reorganise a major public health body in the middle of a pandemic, the Downing Street spokesperson added: “It’s important we learn the right lessons from the crisis to act to ensure the government structures are fit to cope in the future.”

The comments come after Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of PHE, appeared to blame the Department of Health and Social Care for problems in England’s response to the pandemic.

He said criticism of the body was "based on a misunderstanding".

And the health boss added: "The UK had no national diagnostic testing capabilities other than in the NHS at the outset of the pandemic. PHE does not do mass diagnostic testing.

"We operate national reference and research laboratories focussed on novel and dangerous pathogens, and it was never at any stage our role to set the national testing strategy for the coronavirus pandemic. This responsibility rested with DHSC."

The new body, which is reportedly being modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, is set to be in place by September, with NHS Test and Trace chief Dido Harding tipped to run the organisation.

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