Hancock unveils National Institute for Health Protection

18 August 2020, 16:54

The Health Secretary was speaking at a Policy Exchange event
The Health Secretary was speaking at a Policy Exchange event. Picture: LBC
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The Health Secretary has announced a major shakeup of the public health system forming a new agency to give the country the "best chance" of beating coronavirus.

Setting out his plans for a shake-up of the public health system, Matt Hancock said: "The changes that I am announcing today are designed entirely to strengthen our response."

The Health Secretary, 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 announced the formation of a new National Institute for Health Protection which will bring together Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, as well as the analytical capability of the Joint Biosecurity Centre under a single leadership team.

A spokesperson said the move was "the first step towards becoming a single organisation, focused on tackling Covid-19 and protecting the nation’s health."

The Shadow Health Secretary has hit out at Mr Hancock's plans suggesting it was "irresponsible" and "risky" to make the changes during the coronavirus crisis.

Watch in full: Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivers speech on the "future of public health"

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."

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."

Read more: 'Irresponsible' to break up Public Health England during pandemic, Labour says

Lord Lansley critical of plans to scrap PHE

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new agency would help "to give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection and resilience.

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He praised public health officials who have worked to help tackle the coronavirus crisis, he told a press conference: “I want to thank all my brilliant colleagues at Public Health England, the NHS, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Local Directors of Public Health and their teams, contact tracers, diagnostics experts, epidemiologists, infection control teams, and every single person who has contributed to the national effort to get this deadly pandemic under control over the last eight months.

“I would like to personally thank Duncan Selbie for his leadership of PHE bringing together 70 different agencies, pursuing ground-breaking work on tackling obesity, promoting health improvement and leading PHE, in what has been an exceptionally challenging time – I am looking forward to continuing working with him as a leading figure in the global, public health agenda.”

World Health Organisation calls on governments to unite amid coronavirus pandemic

Baroness Dido Harding, who runs the NHS Test and Trace scheme, is set to take on the top job at the IHP.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Tuesday that the Conservative peer will head the Government's new Institute for Health Protection.

The former chief executive of TalkTalk was appointed in May to lead the contact tracing programme, which relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive coronavirus case and getting them to self-isolate.

Baroness Harding said: “Combining the UK’s world-class public health talent and infrastructure with the new at-scale response capability of NHS Test and Trace into a single organisation puts us in the strongest position to stop the spread of the virus.

“The fantastic teams in PHE, NHS Test and Trace and in Local Authorities have done so much, over the past eight months, and I thank them all for their service now and in the future.

“PHE has worked incredibly well with NHS Test and Trace and with winter ahead, the life-saving work we are doing is more important than ever.

“The changes announced today are designed to strengthen our response, and to radically ramp up our fight against this disease, whilst also protecting PHE’s essential work beyond COVID that is so important for the nation’s health.”

Responding to the announcement that Dido Harding will oversee the new organisation Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus Layla Moran said: "The lack of public scrutiny or transparent recruitment process for such a crucial appointment is appalling. This decision should have been debated and scrutinised in Parliament, instead it was announced at a right-wing think tank without a single question allowed from the media.

"Given we still don't have an effective Test, Trace and Isolate system, this feels like a reward for failure.

"The Health Secretary has undermined public trust in this new agency before it's even been launched. Serious questions must be answered over the timing of this decision at a time we should be focused on preparing for a potential second wave.

"The cross-party inquiry I'm chairing has exposed catastrophic errors in the government's handling of this pandemic. It's crucial that lessons are learned in time."

Richard Murray, chief executive of health think tank The King's Fund, criticised Matt Hancock's decision to break up Public Health England (PHE).

He said: "Public Health England appears to have been found guilty without a trial.

"It is unclear what problem government are hoping to solve by carving up PHE and redistributing its responsibilities.

"Undoubtedly, there are questions to be answered about England's handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England's public health agency."