The UK government has axed Public Health England (PHE) — the agency behind England's pandemic response — to replace it with a new national health institute.
The agency will be called The National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) and will be headed by conservative peer Dido Harding, who has been running England’s widely criticized National Health Service (NHS) Test and Trace system.
UK media reports have likened it to Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, a federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention, which handled the country’s coronavirus response. The UK has recorded 41,454 coronavirus deaths — with the majority in England — while Germany has recorded 9,240, according to the John Hopkins University map.
NIHP will be formalized and operating from Spring 2021 but its work will start immediately “with a single command structure to advance the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to the UK government’s website.
“From today [Tuesday] it will bring together Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace, as well as the analytical capability of the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) under a single leadership team. This is the first step towards becoming a single organization, focused on tackling Covid-19 and protecting the nation’s health,” the government statement said.
Some background: PHE has come under repeated fire for its handling of the pandemic, including testing issues and personal protective equipment procurement problems. However, ultimately it is a government agency that reports to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Hancock announced the axing of PHE, saying the new National Institute for Health Protection "will have a single and relentless mission: protecting people from external threats to this country's health."
This includes biological weapons, pandemics and of course infection diseases of all kinds, he said.
"It will combine our world class talent and science infrastructure with the growing response capability of NHS test and trace and the sophisticated analytical capability that we are building in the joint bio-security centre," Hancock added.
He said the changes would strengthen the UK's response to the pandemic in a joined-up response and admitted "we did not go into this crisis with the capacity for a response to a once in a century scale event."
Hancock explained the institute will also work closely with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales "taking on existing UK-wide responsibilities and supporting all four."
"My single biggest fear is a novel flu, or another major health alert, hitting us right now in the middle of this battle against coronavirus. Even once this crisis has passed, and it will pass, we need a disease control infrastructure that gives us the permanent, standing capacity to respond as a nation and the ability to scale up at pace," Hancock said.
The NHS coronavirus tracing app Dido spearheaded was set to play a key part in helping the country out of lockdown, and government officials had said it would be rolled out nationally in mid-May. However, it was never launched nationally and was scrapped in a government U-turn in favor of a system developed jointly by Google and Apple in June. It is still in the trial stage.