‘Sacrificed to protect political careers’ – Experts hit out at abolition of Public Health England

"Most of what is blamed for is the fault of others"

Many local councils’ Directors of Public Health (DPH) have criticised the government for deciding to abolish Public Health England (PHE).

They said PHE was a scapegoat, that the timing of the announcement was terrible and that PHE had been a key part of the fight against coronavirus and other health problems.

Public Health England was created in 2013 and its goal is to improve England’s health and wellbeing and to reduce health inequalities. In the early stages of the pandemic, it carried out contact tracing but abandoned this as the infection rate rose.

The government have announced it will be scrapped and replaced by a National Institute for Health Protection, which will reportedly be led by Dido Harding. She is a former telecoms executive, was responsible for track-and-trace and is the wife of a Tory MP.

This decision was criticised by many Directors of Public Health, who are in charge of public health campaigns on a local level.

Sheffield’s DPH Greg Fell shared a tweet by the Telegraph’s Paul Nuki which said: “The Government has announced is splitting up PHE. You may think this a good or bad thing but do not be fooled. The agency is in many ways infuriating but most of what it is blamed for is the fault of others…”

On a similar note, Bolton’s DPH Helen Lowey re-tweeted a comment from Dr Andrew Lee which said: “I worry about current trends. Appears to me that public servants and public service organisations can be sacrificed in order to protect or advance political careers/interests. Doesn’t bode well.”

Rochdale’s DPH Andrea Fallon tweeted: “Really dissapointed for my brilliant and talented PHE colleagues who give me wise counsel on complex [Public Health] challenges. These are rare skills and realistically local authorities cant fill all the gaps. Everyone in [Public Health] is flat out …the timing couldnt be worse…”

Bristol’s DPH Cristina Gray re-tweeted a local doctor who said: “Halfway through a Monday and I am feeling the brunt-Public Health is on best days a busy discipline,almost no limits to issues/jobs;but during a pandemic it is relentless;really feeling for my PHE colleagues and PHE South-West who I was part of until recently. I stand with you all.”

Swindon’s DPH said Public Health England and Public Health South-West had been “fundamental” to Swindon’s coronavirus response. Somerset’s DPH replied, saying: “We have excellent close working relationships with PHE South-West, not just for #COVID but everything else PHE does for health improvement as well as health protection.”

The Association of Directors of Public Health also criticised the decision. Its President, Jeanelle de Gruchy, said she “highly value[d]” her PHE colleagues “who have been working tirelessly in the fight against COVID-19”.

She continued: “The timing of this announcement is particularly surprising and our immediate priority must be the stability of the workforce at a local level to ensure we can continue to focus on preventing and managing outbreaks.”

Local DPHs have previously criticised other aspects of the government’s coronavirus response. In July, several tweeted criticism of the decision to have McKinsey re-organise the test-and trace programme. They said that public health experts should have been chosen instead of management consultants.

Public Health England does have its critics though. In April, the secretively-funded ‘Taxpayers Alliance’ think tank said it was “bloated” and has long described it as part of the ‘nanny state’.

Also in April, Left Foot Forward revealed that Public Health England’s medical director had misled the public about a rise in road traffic. She said there was a “concerning” increase on Monday 30 March without mentioning this uptick was just caused by it being a weekday when more people travel.

Joe Lo is a co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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