Public Health England to be abolished in favour of new “health protection body”.

It seemed like one minute Public Health England was going to build a new £400 million, state of the art, HQ in Harlow and the next it was gone, “scrapped” as The Daily Telegraph put it, amidst accusations of being made a “scapegoat” for perceived failures over the Coronavirus response in general and Test and Trace in particular.

It is being replaced by a new body set up to deal specifically with a pandemic. This new body, called the National Institute for Health Protection, will be led by the former boss of Talk Talk, Baroness Dido Harding. The naming of this body echoes The Health Protection Agency, which PHE replaced in 2013. The phrase “going full circle again” springs to mind.

It is worth pointing out that Public Health England was only formed on April 1st 2013, not the most auspicious date to launch anything, has a reported budget of £300 million per year and employs around 5000 people, 2750 of whom were going to be put into this new £400 million HQ in Harlow.

Media Friendly have been working within the Public Health arena for over 20 years now, initially with The Health Protection Agency, at its London HQ and regional centres, as well as its specialist centre at Porton Down.

Media Friendly also did a lot of work around Teen Pregnancy between 1998 and 2010 with both Teen Pregnancy Units and Primary Care Trusts. Media Friendly aren’t claiming the credit, but this was one of the biggest Public Health successes in the UK in the 21st century. Britain went from having the highest teen pregnancy rate in Europe, down to a level where it became virtually a non-story with even The Daily Mail losing interest.

Public Health managed to raise awareness around obesity to the point where everyone was repeating phrases like “Five a Day” as if they had been there forever and virtually every politician was quoting facts such as “One in three children are obese” – to warn against the dangers of obesity. These were success stories in so many ways and on so many different levels.

So, what went wrong with Coronavirus – in such a short space of time – to instigate the abolition of Public Health England with one seemingly swift stroke – causing concerns amongst a host of clinicians and senior health professionals?

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine and a former Government advisor said, “PHE employs some of the best, brightest and most hardworking clinicians and experts we have. There are simply not enough of them, which can partly be explained by the steady reduction in funding over the last seven years.”

It seems that nearly every country has failed to deliver on a satisfactory response to Coronavirus. Germany, would appear to have bucked the trend with less than 10,000 Coronavirus deaths compared with the UK’s death toll of over 40,000 and the USA’s 173,000 total to date.

Public Health England are seemingly being held accountable for issues such as lack of PPE clothing, the huge spike in Covid deaths in Care Homes and the Test and Trace fiasco. Then there is the issue of our crashed economy – with the Government inevitably being blamed for instigating Lockdown, Remote Working and Social Distancing which has caused over a million jobs to be lost and the economy set back by twenty years.

In order to achieve anything you firstly need infrastructure – which can take years to set up. Public Health England, whatever their faults, were in a strong position to achieve this – with their plans for their new £400 million “world leading science campus”.

Setting up a new body may be a political solution to a crisis, but it just means that we are taking another, further step back, in order to (hopefully) take two steps forward – by no means a guaranteed outcome.

So what will happen to the 5000 PHE staff and the “brightest and best” scientists currently employed by PHE? Will they have to spend valuable time re-applying for new jobs at this new body, instead of working out how to stop a Second, Third and possibly Fourth Wave of Coronavirus? If one wants to learn lessons from history, it was that Spanish flu eventually infected one third of the world’s population in no fewer than 4 Waves, over a 16 month period. Why should Coronavirus be any different?

The sad truth is that one can’t have secure Lockdown (ie virtual public safety) and a successful economy. The two simply do not go together. You may end up having the worst of both worlds – which is the position some would say we are in now.

The crucial issue has to be – how do you square public safety with public prosperity? A vaccine may or may not be far away. Herd immunity is a remote possibility – at this stage and globalisation exacerbates the public health problem because all our economies are inextricably linked.

So is scrapping PHE tantamount to “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”? We simply don’t know. But we do know who the brightest and best are and we know where they are right now – so as long as politicians can work out a successful strategy not to completely wreck our fragile economy, it would seem best to leave the scientists to get on with what, historically, they do best – come up with solutions.

Having said all that, it may well be that PHE actually remains in place in all but name, with this new body simply linking a political voice, with pragmatic procurement (Test and Trace, PPE clothing etc) and keeping in place scientific best practice, where it currently lies.

Let us wait and see.

Media Friendly have been media training NHS CEO’s, clinicians, executives and senior staff for more than twenty years, through some of the most challenging times. If you have a potential media crisis, a serious media issue or just need presentation skills training our experienced BBC and ITN broadcast journalists can help you face the media with confidence. When the media first make an enquiry, you need to know how to respond, be prepared, call us now 01628 474154