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Sat, 24 October 2020

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The Government's decision to scrap Public Health England during a global pandemic is yet another attempt to duck responsibility

The Government's decision to scrap Public Health England during a global pandemic is yet another attempt to duck responsibility

The Government has got its priorities wrong and has failed to justify why this decision has been made, writes Munira Wilson MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Instead of axing and replacing Public Health England, the Government should be reflecting on their handling of Covid-19 and launch an independent inquiry to learn the lessons of this crisis.

Before this year not many people will have heard of Public Health England or known what it did.

Its general description of existing to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities gives an idea of what it is about, but not much indication of its actual roles and responsibilities. 

For the last few months we have been brutally confronted with the reality of what protecting the nation's health means and the significance of health inequalities. We have witnessed those from the most deprived areas or from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background suffering higher mortality rates from Covid-19. 

Public Health England has had a role to play in preparing for a pandemic and responding to Covid-19.

There are valid questions to ask about how well it has done, and where it could have done better. But the announcement this week from Matt Hancock that he was axing the agency feels, first and foremost, like a decision by the Government to deflect responsibility for the shambolic management of the pandemic.

With the coronavirus crisis taking its toll on the daily lives of people up and down the country, to scrap a body at the heart of the public health response in the middle of a global pandemic is odd at best, and dangerously reckless at worst.

Public Health England has had its budget cut repeatedly under the Conservative Government since it was set up.

The Government has got its priorities wrong and has failed to justify why this decision has been made.

This is an agency that, while it may have operational autonomy, is part of the Department of Health and Social Care with ultimate responsibility falling to the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock. It is also a body that has had its budget cut repeatedly under the Conservative Government since it was set up. 

The Government’s decision to axe a body that is at the heart of our healthcare response to Covid-19, feels like yet another attempt to duck responsibility. 

It is also a decision that doesn’t appear to be fully thought through.

Matt Hancock yesterday tried to draw a distinction between health protection and health improvement - currently Public Health England has responsibility for both.

The new agency that he will be creating to replace Public Health England - the National Institute for Health Protection - will have responsibility for health protection. Matt Hancock did not say where responsibility for health improvement will now lie – including important functions such as screening and immunisation programmes, support for overcoming addictions, healthy living to prevent diseases like cancer or heart disease, etc. 

With health inequalities widening and their role in worsening Covid-19 outcomes, it is extremely concerning that this aspect of Public Health England’s work has not been appropriately considered in the announcement. People deserve better.

There has also been shock at the lack of transparency around the decision to promote government insider Dido Harding to this potentially pivotal role, given the Test and Trace system she was responsible for setting up is still not up to scratch.

I am not the only person with concerns.

Chief Executive of The King’s Fund, Richard Murray, said the public body had been “found guilty without a trial” and stated it was “unclear what problem [the] government are hoping to solve by carving up Publi Health England and redistributing its responsibilities”. 

Instead of rearranging the deckchairs, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock should reflect on their handling of this pandemic and launch an independent inquiry - that is the only way to learn the lessons of this crisis.

The Prime Minister has promised this, there is no reason to delay. 

 

Munira Wilson is the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Health and Social care. 

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