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What is Public Health England and why is Matt Hancock replacing it?

Public Health England (PHE) has come in for significant criticism during the Coronavirus pandemic, with the government frequent lambasting the organisation for poor advice and botched death statistics, leading the government to announce that they are replacing the organisation.

An agency of the Health and Social Care Department, Public Health England is largely responsible for the delivery of wider public health services in the UK, dealing with coordinating responses to issues from substance misuse to advising on public policy.

Since the Coronavirus pandemic, the agency has come under fire for a lack of solid advice to government ministers and for maculating data on COVID-related deaths, revising down their statistics by 5,000 following a review. The original data recorded anyone who had died following a positive test result, however, the revised figures meant that after 28 days it would no longer be considered COVID-related.

This was following criticism from the government that individuals who had tested positive for the virus but died of different and unrelated causes were being considered COVID-deaths, inflating the number of causalities. The new methodology is considered more in line with that of the rest of Europe.

PHE has been partly viewed as a government scapegoat – in response to amongst the world’s worst death rates – but the pandemic has revealed some flaws within the organisation that have prompted the decision to replace it.

Instead, the government wish to create a new National Institute for Health Protection, which will combine several health agencies under one banner, hoping to streamline the coordination of responses to national health crises and pandemic diseases.

Although this seems a noble aim, the government have been heavily criticised for using PHE as a scapegoat for the pandemic response, whilst the decision to replace the agency was taken behind closed doors, resulting in fears that it will be a political department close to government ministers.

The decision to appoint Dido Harding – a Conservative Peer and wife of a Conservative MP – has raised significant concerns that the department will be at the behest of the government and not properly independent.

The new organisation called the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) will absorb the track and trace system for Coronavirus, with Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, stating that PHE was not suitable for running a nationwide track and trace system.

The government have admitted that their response to the virus was slow, with the prime minister calling it “sluggish”, but it is widely expected that the buck for the slow response is being passed by ministers to PHE.

According to the Financial Times, the delayed response to the pandemic was only partly the result of failings within PHE, with an instinct to centralise and significant government cuts leading to the policy failures.

It remains to be seen whether the new NIHP will be a more effective agency at dealing with some evident failings within Public Health England, but the concerns about the government’s motivations for their decision will not be likely to dissipate soon.