Plans to break up Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic are “irresponsible” and “risky”, Labour has said.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said that structural reorganisation is “time consuming” and “energy sapping”.
In a series of scathing tweets, Ashworth said the government was trying to “shift the blame” when it announces plans to break up the embattled organisation later.
A story placed with the Sunday Telegraph suggests that the coronavirus (Covid-19) response work of PHE is to be merged with NHS Test and Trace to form a new Health Protection Institute, designed specifically to deal with pandemics.
Meanwhile, Ashworth said the NHS Test and Trace service “isn’t world beating as promised”.
It is widely expected that Tory peer Dido Harding, the former Talk Talk boss who leads the Test and Trace programme in England, will become interim head of the new organisation.
Ashworth said: “Last year ministers outlined PHE’s priorities. They didn’t mention preparing for a pandemic.
“A structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is time consuming, energy sapping. It’s risky, indeed irresponsible.
“And what an insulting way to treat hardworking staff who heard about this from a paywalled Sunday newspaper leaving them with questions and worries about their jobs.”
On Monday, PHE boss Duncan Selbie wrote to staff saying he was “sorry beyond words” that the future of the body was briefed to the media before his staff were told.
Ashworth added: “Test & Trace isn’t world beating as promised. It’s spent millions on outsourced Serco call centres and private labs when everyone advised them to put local health experts in [the] lead. Cash would be more effective if given to local public health. Serco shouldn’t receive a penny more.
“PHE has a wide range of health priorities – addiction, sexual health, obesity, children’s health, anti smoking, Antimicrobial Resistance and (of obvious increasing importance) [a] key role in supporting uptake and access to vaccinations. Who will be responsible for these priorities?
“We went into this pandemic with health inequalities widening and life expectancy going backwards for [the] poorest. Covid thrives on these inequalities, disproportionately impacting the poorest and BAME communities. A strong well funded public health sector is needed more than ever.
“Today we’ll get a structural reorganisation, an attempt at blame shifting, more corrosive privatisation.
“The shift we need is towards a local test & trace system delivering mass testing, [that] finds cases, uses local expertise to trace and supports people to isolate with security.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock is due to deliver a speech at the thinktank Policy Exchange titled The Future of Public Health.
Responding to reports that Public Health England is to be replaced, a No 10 spokesperson said on Monday: “We have always said we must learn the right lessons from the crisis and act to ensure government structures are fit to cope.
“But I would make the point that PHE [has] played an integral role in our response to this unprecedented pandemic, working on important issues such as detection, surveillance, contact tracing and testing.”
But critics said if ministers are unhappy with PHE’s performance, they have only themselves to blame as it is directly under ministerial control.
Unite national officer for health Jackie Williams said: “It is clear that Public Health England and its dedicated staff are being lined up to be the fall guy for continual bungling by Boris Johnson and his ministers since coronavirus emerged at the beginning of the year.”
Karen Middleton, chief executive of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said: “There have clearly been failings in handling the Covid pandemic, but scapegoating PHE is unfair and potentially dangerous.
“A range of people and agencies are accountable for the handling of the pandemic, not just PHE.
“This feels like a crude attempt to shift blame.”
Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “We question the timing of an announcement to scrap our national public health agency in the midst of a global pandemic and before any public inquiry has started, let alone reported.”
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