Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), ahead of a cabinet meeting to be held at the FCO, for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown in London, Britain July 21, 2020. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced today (Aug 18) that Public Health England is being scrapped and replaced by a new national body which could have pharmacy at the centre of its prevention agenda.

“The National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) will have a single and relentless mission, protecting people from external threats to this country’s health; external threats like biological weapons, pandemics, and of course, infectious diseases,” said Hancock, speaking at an event at the think tank, Policy Exchange, on Tuesday (Aug 18).

Dido Harding, the former chief executive of internet provider TalkTalk and the current head of the contact tracing service, will run the new institute, which will also focus on health protection and prevention.

Noting that obesity had been linked to an increased risk from Covid-19, Hancock said: “We’ve seen how conditions like obesity can increase the risk for those who have coronavirus.

“Leveling up health inequalities and preventing ill health is a vital and a broad agenda. It’s got to be embedded right across government, right across the NHS, in primary care and pharmacies and in the work of every single local authority.”

He added that the NIPH “will combine our world class talent and science infrastructure with the growing response capability of NHS,” but “this will be a national institute that works very much locally, working with local directors of public health and their team, who are in my opinion, the unsung heroes of health protection.”

The health secretary said the new institute will report directly to ministers and support the clinical leadership of the chief medical officer.

“The NIHP will also work closely with the devolved administrations, taking on existing UK-wide responsibilities and supporting all four chief medical officers with access to the best scientific and analytical advice.

“By bringing these parts of the system together, we can get more than the sum of the parts. And the mission, that mission, is for a purpose, so we have a stronger, more joined-up response to protect people and the communities in which they live.

“It will be dedicated to the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and external health threats, that’ll be its mission. It’s conceived amid crisis but it will help maintain vigilance for years to come.”

Public Health England, a cornerstone of the government’s health system with responsibility for managing infectious outbreaks, will have many of its functions merged with the government’s contact tracing service into NIHP.

However, PHE has been blamed for failing to ramp up coronavirus testing early in the crisis, abandoning a programme of widespread contact tracing as the number of cases rose, and initially deciding to share almost no details about the location of infections with local public health officials.

Some public health officials have accused ministers of shifting the blame for their own mistakes on to PHE ahead of a public inquiry that will scrutinise the response to the crisis.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a lockdown later than many other countries, which government advisers now say led to thousands of avoidable deaths.

PHE was created by a previous Conservative government in 2013 when the government carved out many of the public health responsibilities from the National Health Service.

The agency, which reports directly to the health minister, was given a wide remit from promoting healthier lifestyles to protecting against infectious diseases.

The NIHP will be operational from next spring.

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