Tories accused of desperately shifting blame by scrapping Public Health England

Tory ministers are facing a furious backlash amid reports that the government is planning to scrap Public Health England (PHE) in favour of a new pandemic response agency.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is reportedly set to outline the National Institute for Health Protection in the coming week, with the new organisation overseeing PHE’s work on Covid-19 and the NHS Test and Trace system operating in the UK.

However, the plans have already come under fire from opposing MPs, who have accused Boris Johnson of desperately trying to ‘shift the blame’ due to a series of ‘ministerial failures’ amid the pandemic.

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth has now demanded ‘urgent clarity’ from the government on why a ‘time-consuming structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is helpful’.

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He told The Mirror: ‘PHE could have been better prepared if the Tories hadn’t spent years cutting public health budgets and then outsourcing much of the testing and tracing response on this pandemic.

‘Where does this leave other important health prevention priorities for example on sexual health services, drug and alcohol services and obesity that PHE carries out?’

Shadow Safeguarding Minister Jess Phillips also echoed Ashworth’s argument as she questioned which bodies would be taking on PHE’s other projects if the new organisation will only address the pandemic.

She tweeted: ‘So what happens to sexual health, substance misuse strategy, domestic and sexual abuse health strategy?’

Lib Dem health spokeswoman Munira Wilson also wrote online: ‘Ministers attempt to deflect responsibility for their shambolic management of the pandemic by a bureaucratic reorganisation, headed up their mate who has made such a storming success of Test and Trace. You couldn’t make this stuff up.’

She told Metro.co.uk the announcement had gone down ‘like a bucket of cold sick’. She went on: ‘Be in no doubt, ministers are attempting to deflect responsibility for their shambolic management of the pandemic with a bureaucratic reorganisation.

‘Instead of rearranging the deckchairs, they should be learning lessons ahead of a possible second wave. The government must finally deliver the comprehensive strategy to test, trace and isolate every case of coronavirus so we can keep people safe and prevent new surges.’

According to the Sunday Telegraph, the National Institute for Health Protection is due to come into effect in September, although the handover is expected to take until next year to complete.

The new agency is thought to be based on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, while inspiration has also been taken from South Korea’s response to the pandemic. It is understood the Health Secretary wanted to allow enough time for the merger to be completed ahead of a potential surge of infections in autumn.

It will be focused specifically on pandemics, with the body’s new chief executive reporting to Hancock and England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, therefore giving ministers direct control over how it handles the ongoing crisis.

Neither Downing Street nor the Department of Health and Social care have denied reports of the plans.

PHE recently came under fire after it was revealed it was counting deaths of people diagnosed with coronavirus who had died of any cause after 28 days, eventually resulting in a change of system which knocked off 5,377 deaths from the UK total.

The health body has also been criticised for having insufficient diagnostic tests available to track the spread of coronavirus early on in the outbreak.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘Public Health England have played an integral role in our national response to this unprecedented global pandemic.

‘We have always been clear that we must learn the right lessons from this crisis to ensure that we are in the strongest possible position, both as we continue to deal with Covid-19 and to respond to any future public health threat.’

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