Public Health England (PHE) is being scrapped as part of plans for a new organisation responsible for dealing with pandemics, the health secretary has announced.
Matt Hancock confirmed the decision reported over the weekend to set up a body called the National Institute for Health Protection, which will also work against the threats of biological weapons and infectious diseases.
From this week it will subsume parts of PHE, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS Test and Trace, he said in a speech on Tuesday.
Baroness Dido Harding, currently in charge of Whitehall’s contact-tracing operation, will temporarily head the new body and lead the search for a permanent successor.
Given the number of people with coronavirus still not being reached, one Liberal Democrat MP branded the appointment a “reward for failure”.
Mr Hancock said the pandemic had “shone a light on our public health system” and that he has “learned a lot about… what needs to change”.
But he paid tribute to public health experts’ “incredible work” and commended PHE’s research as “some of the best that’s been done” into COVID-19.
The change is coming “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”, Mr Hancock explained.
He added it was happening while the latest number of daily infections stands at just over 700 because “if something is the right thing to do then putting off the change is usually the wrong thing to do”.
It follows several reports that ministers have been frustrated with the way PHE has dealt with the coronavirus crisis.
The government adopted a new way of counting daily deaths from COVID-19, after concerns were raised that the method used by PHE officials overstated them.
According to the latest government statistics, 41,369 people have died across the UK with coronavirus, and the Office for National Statistics found England had the highest excess death rate in Europe over the first half of 2020.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said scrapping PHE was “desperate blame-shifting”.
“A structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is time consuming, energy sapping; it’s risky, indeed irresponsible,” he tweeted.
“And what an insulting way to treat hard-working staff who heard about this from a paywalled Sunday newspaper leaving them with questions and worries about their jobs.
“The shift we need is towards a local test and trace system that delivers mass testing, finds cases, uses local expertise to trace and supports people to isolate with security.”
Richard Murray, head of the King’s Fund health think tank, also said PHE “appears to have been found guilty without a trial” and it is “unclear what problem government are hoping to solve”.
Questions also remain over what will happen to some of PHE’s responsibilities not being taken over by its successor.
The move will also fuel speculation Downing Street is preparing for the independent inquiry into the UK’s pandemic response promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Layla Moran, a Lib Dem leadership contender, said the “lack of public scrutiny or transparent recruitment process” for promoting Baroness Harding was “appalling”.
“Given we still don’t have an effective test, trace and isolate system, this feels like a reward for failure,” she added.
Mr Hancock defended promoting the former chief executive of TalkTalk in an interview after his speech.
He said she had “excellent experience” outside government and previously worked for the NHS so “her leadership will be vital in driving this forward”.
Not all Conservatives will welcome the move to abolish PHE.
Former Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley told Sky News last month that those in his own party calling for it to be axed were making “criticism born of ignorance”.
“Public Health England is an agency of the Department of Health,” he said. “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.”