THE UK government has announced a new “rigorous” science-led health unit to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and other infectious diseases.
The National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), reports of which had emerged over the weekend, will start work immediately with a single command structure that brings together existing units such as Public Health England (PHE), NHS Test and Trace, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
“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,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“The National Institute for Health Protection will bring together the expertise of PHE with the enormous response capabilities of NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to put us in the best possible position for the next stage of the fight against Covid-19 and for the long-term.”
The government’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that in order to minimise disruption to the ongoing work dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the new organisation will be formalised and fully operational from the first half of 2021.
Baroness Dido Harding, currently in charge of the NHS Test and Trace operation, will temporarily head the new institute and lead the search for a permanent successor.
“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,” said Harding.
“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-19 that is so important for the nation’s health.”
The creation of the new institute follows some concerns raised over the PHE’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including the methodology of recording the death toll from the deadly virus which stands at over 41,000 in the UK.
Hancock, however, lauded public health experts for their “incredible work”, and commended PHE’s research as “some of the best that’s been done” in the battle against Covid-19.
He stressed that the new institute was being brought in to further strengthen the country’s public health response.
“If something is the right thing to do then putting off the change is usually the wrong thing to do,” he said.
Hancock added that his “single biggest fear” was “a novel flu, or another major health alert, hitting us right now in the middle of this battle against coronavirus”.
The Labour Party criticised the government for what it branded as “blame-shifting”, said the move amounted to “insulting” hardworking PHE staff.
“A structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is time-consuming, energy sapping; it’s risky, indeed irresponsible,” said shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth.
Some public health officials also had accused ministers of shifting the blame for their own mistakes on to PHE ahead of a public inquiry that will scrutinise the response to the crisis.
The government, however, said the move was aimed at learning from the best systems around the world and work with local directors of public health and their teams, to use their crucial insight and intelligence to deliver a world-class service.
It will ensure the UK will be in an even stronger position to deal with and further recover from Covid-19, the strongest possible position to meet the health protection challenges over the coming winter and be more resilient to respond to future pandemics, the DHSC said.
Duncan Selbie, the outgoing PHE chief executive, will take up the role of a senior advisor to the DHSC on global and public health.
“PHE’s work on the pandemic in the early stages and since stands testament to the professionalism and unremitting hard work of my colleagues and bought precious time for the NHS and government to prepare,” said Selbie.
Over the coming weeks and months, the DHSC and PHE experts will engage on future options on decisions around the future of PHE’s remaining health improvement functions.