No 10 casts doubt over Public Health England's future

Boris Johnson complained of 'sluggish' response of some parts of official machinery to coronavirus

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Adam Forrest
Wednesday 01 July 2020 15:17 BST
Public Health England withholding evidence on mass testing axe, says Greg Clarke

Downing Street has put a major question mark over the future of Public Health England, telling reporters that institutional changes could be introduced to “further strengthen our public health capabilities”.

Doubts over the agency’s future were raised when Boris Johnson complained in a major speech on Tuesday about the “sluggish” response of some parts of government to the coronavirus crisis.

His comment prompted former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith to call for PHE to be “abolished tomorrow”

Critics have pointed the finger of blame at the agency for the UK’s late imposition of lockdown, the decision to cease testing in the community in March and delays in sharing data on the spread of the disease.

Asked whether PHE could be abolished or reformed, prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman pointedly remarked that the government had already set up two new bodies, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which are carrying out significant public health duties.

And he pointed to a passage in the coronavirus recovery plan published by Mr Johnson on 11 May, which stated: “As the Government navigates towards recovery, it must ensure it learns the right lessons from this crisis and acts now to ensure that governmental structures are fit to cope with a future epidemic, including the prospect of an outbreak of a second epidemic - for example, a pandemic flu - while the government is still responding to COVID-19.

“This will require a rapid re-engineering of government’s structures and institutions to deal with this historic emergency and also build new long-term foundations for the UK, and to help the rest of the world.”

The PM’s spokesman said that PHE was “playing a key role” in the official response to coronavirus, working on detection, surveillance, contact tracing and testing.

“They have been working hard to help protect the country and to provide insight in our efforts to defeat the virus.”

PHE's medical director Yvonne Doyle was among the experts to join ministers at Downing Street coronavirus briefings (PA)

But in a clear signal that reform of the delivery of public health responsibilities is not ruled out, the PM’s spokesman added: “Any future changes we might make would be aimed at further strengthening our public health capabilities.”

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Johnson made a point of praising the armed forces for the speed with which they were able to construct pop-up Nightingale hospitals across the country.

But he said that there were "parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly, so that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move."

One former Tory health minister told The Daily Telegraph that PHE appeared “destined for the chop”. The same newspaper also quoted a government official stating: “Once we have put coronavirus behind us it seems pretty certain there will be some changes.”

Mr Duncan Smith said he would “abolish PHE tomorrow” if he was in charge, claiming the agency was guilty of “arrogance laced with incompetence”.

Following local lockdown conditions imposed on Leicester, mayor Sir Peter Soulsby criticised PHE for delays in sharing data showing how fast the disease had spread in his city.

The government agency publishes a weekly local breakdown of pillar 1 coronavirus test results — those taken from commercial labs processing drive-through tests. But it has not been regularly providing local pillar 2 results — those taken from swab tests of the wider population.

The data gap has been blamed for the delay in imposing the lockdown in Leicester. Local leaders thought the city had recorded just 80 new Covid-19 cases in a two-week period. Yet once pillar 2 tests results were added, there were 944 cases.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted on Wednesday that local authorities in her constituency in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, had still not been able to get hold of local pillar 2 testing data. “Appalling and incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided,” she said.

One former government scientific adviser said there was only a window of just a few weeks to have better “data systems” up and running for the scheduled full return of schools in England.

Professor Neil Ferguson, attempting to defend the role of PHE, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we need to get the systems working, but I also agree that Public Health England and everybody involved is doing their best.”

The Imperial College London professor added: “It’s a very complex system to combine data from multiple sources from across the whole country. I don’t think we have any time to lose but I’m not going to sit here and start criticising people at the moment.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) has also implored the government to ensure that local leaders are given timely information about cases in their area to help contain the spread of the virus.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA Council, said: “The prime minister has talked about a ‘whack a mole’ strategy to tackle local outbreaks, but this is no use if the people leading the response on the ground — be they public health teams or local leaders — are not given the most accurate up-to-date data possible.”

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