Public Health England (PHE) has been found guilty without a trial, according to the chief executive of the King's Fund who said that the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England’s public health agency. 

He said it was risky to undertake such a shake up while the nation is still grappling with Covid-19, ahead of an anticipated winter spike in demand for health services and with the looming threat of a second wave of the virus.

The criticism came as the government announced that PHE was to be replaced with the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP).

Duncan Selbie, the outgoing chief executive of Public Health England, said he couldn't be prouder of what it had achieved since 2013 in protecting the country from infectious diseases and environmental hazards.

He said it had improved the health of the people from reduced smoking rates to tackling poor air quality and obesity and its work during the pandemic stands testament to the professionalism and unremitting hard work of his colleagues and bought precious time for the NHS and government to prepare.

Selbie was praised by Matt Hancock for his leadership in bringing together 70 different agencies and pursuing ground-breaking work in what has been an exceptionally challenging time.

What will happen to the many other functions of PHE?

The Nuffield Trust also said the government risks making a major misstep by dismantling its own Public Health agency at such a crucial time, creating a huge distraction for staff who should be dedicating themselves to the next stage of the pandemic.

Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive, said there is no clear argument as to why this rebranding and reshuffling will solve some of the problems highlighted by the Secretary of State today.  

"Simply dismantling and reconstituting an agency, under the direct control of the same ministers and department as previously, doesn't seem to hold out much hope of improvement," he said.

"It also raises many important questions. What exactly will happen to the many other functions of the agency beyond infection control? If Public Health England's disease control arm has struggled at times, why should merging it with equally struggling Test and Trace programme lead to an improvement for either one?”

New National Institute for Health Protection

PHE will now be replaced with the new NIHP will brings together PHE, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) under a single leadership team under the interim leadership of Baroness Dido Harding.

The King's Fund said the government must be crystal clear on what it hopes the new NIHP will achieve, how the many other critical public health duties will be delivered across government and how the whole system will be adequately funded.

Richard Murray, Chief Executive of The King’s Fund, said: "Public Health England (PHE) appears to have been found guilty without a trial. It is unclear what problem government are hoping to solve by carving up PHE and redistributing its responsibilities. Undoubtedly, there are questions to be answered about England’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England’s public health agency. 

"History is littered with reorganisations of the health system that are costly, time consuming and demoralising for staff. It is risky to undertake such a shake up while the nation is still grappling with Covid-19, ahead of an anticipated winter spike in demand for health services and with the looming threat of a second wave of the virus."

He added that PHE’s role goes far beyond pandemic response and includes, among other things, tackling obesity, reducing health inequalities and improving life expectancy, all of which will be key to the country’s recovery once the worst of the pandemic has passed. 

NIHP will use cutting-edge digital and data analytics tools

In a speech made today, Matt Hancock said that the NIHP will succeed by building an institution with the most revered expertise, in a culture that is open, outward-looking, non-hierarchical, and embraces the potential of its whole team.

He said: "Getting this culture of rigour and speed, of expertise and inquisitiveness, of outward-looking confidence, is critical to success. This new Institute will focus on what works, bringing in ideas and expertise from wherever it can be found. And it will support a culture of collaboration and change, shunning silos and unnecessary bureaucracy. It will work seamlessly to harness the capabilities of academia and groundbreaking and innovative private companies with whom we must work so closely to get the best result.

"It will work hand in glove with the NHS, and it will use the most modern, cutting-edge digital and data analytics tools at its core. These are the qualities that will allow us to deal not just with today’s threats, but tomorrow’s threats too."