Public Health England’s future in doubt as No10 refuses to rule out scrapping it

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The future of a key health body was thrown into doubt today after No10 refused to rule out scrapping or reforming it – as soon as this winter.

Downing Street refused to guarantee Public Health England would continue in its current form after Tory MPs called for it to be scrapped.

It comes after Boris Johnson yesterday said some parts of the state had been “sluggish” in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. He did not say which bits he meant.

Public Health England has been responsible for much of the controversial testing programme in England, which saw widespread community testing axed in March.

It was then slowly brought back as capacity increased.

Briefing against PHE intensified overnight as a former minister told the Daily Telegraph it appeared “destined for the chop”.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, added to the newspaper: “I would abolish PHE tomorrow.

“What this has shown is that if ministers are to take responsibility for things they must also have control, and they don’t have control over PHE.”

The newspaper reported that the Treasury was reviewing whether plans to establish a new PHE headquarters in Harlow, Essex, should go ahead.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman today insisted PHE was playing a “key role” but did not rule out whether it could undergo major reforms or be scrapped.

He said: “PHE are playing a key role in our response working on important issues such as detection, surveillance, contact-tracing and testing.

“They have been working hard to help protect the country and to provide insight in our efforts to beat the virus.

“Separately, you’re aware that the roadmap we published in May says we must learn the right lessons from this crisis and act to ensure the government’s structures are fit to cope.

“Both as we continue to deal with coronavirus now, and to respond to any future epidemic.”

Asked if the reference to “structures” was about PHE he replied: “We’ve made changes to structures already – for instance, we have set up from scratch NHS test and trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

“Any future changes we might make would be aimed at further strengthening our public health capabilities.”

Asked if it was the PM’s ambition to reform or replace PHE before winter, he replied: “I’ve not got anything beyond what’s in the roadmap.”

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