The blame game has started – and Public Health England is first in the firing line


The inquiry into the UK’s response to coronavirus will be brutal and it will be dirty.

Scrapping for survival, the cast of characters thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic will be desperate to avoid being cast as the villain – and that may mean looking for an alternative candidate.

Boris Johnson has already committed to a future independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The prime minister says it is not the “right moment to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry”, but you can already see the outline of the inevitable blame game taking shape.

First in the firing line is Public Health England – and this week PHE has provided the ammunition itself.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has asked for an “urgent review” over fears PHE’s data on coronavirus deaths is inaccurate.

Researchers claim a “statistical anomaly” means if someone was previously diagnosed with COVID-19 but subsequently died of unrelated causes, their death would still be counted as part of PHE’s daily coronavirus death tally (unlike in Scotland and Wales).

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In other words, if someone was run down by a bus after testing positive for coronavirus, COVID-19 would be listed as the cause of death.

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This will only add to the growing criticism of PHE – and speculation it will be scrapped.

In an interview to be played on tomorrow’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley mounts a defence of the beleaguered body which he set up as part of his reorganisation of the health service.

“Nobody is going to scrap PHE,” he said.

“Where this particular responsibility is concerned, before 2013 we had the Health Protection Agency. All of the relevant powers and resources and people were transferred en bloc from the Health Protection Agency into Public Health England.

“So anybody who says the response of Public Health England was somehow changed by the 2012/13 reforms, I’m afraid, is simply wrong.”

Responding to Iain Duncan Smith’s call to “abolish PHE tomorrow”, he said: “This is a criticism born of ignorance.

“Public Health England is an agency of the Department of Health. The legislation, the law provides for direct control by the government, by the secretary of state of the activities of Public Health England.

“So not only does the secretary of state have all the required powers, he also has all the required control.

“And actually in a public health emergency that also applies to the NHS. In an emergency the law provides that the secretary of state has power of direction to the NHS not only at the centre but also to individual NHS trusts.

“So I’m afraid anyone in government who tries to say we didn’t have enough power is frankly either deluding themselves or trying to mislead other people… insofar as people are suggesting there’s some distinction between the government and Public Health England I’m afraid that is utterly misplaced.”

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Who is right?

Health care sources have told me that although there is some legitimate criticism, PHE is also being scapegoated.

Number 10, however, is thought to have a different view, blaming PHE for the initially chaotic coronavirus testing regime as well as the decision made early in the crisis to abandon widespread tracking of the virus.

When the prime minister criticised “the parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move” in a speech in July, he is widely understood to have been referring to PHE.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, blaming an easily replaceable administrative system may be the easiest solution when the inquiry comes.

If I was Andrew Lansley, I wouldn’t be so convinced of its survival.

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