5 Times Public Health England *Wasn't* To Blame For The Country's Terrible Coronavirus Response

The government has been accused of attempting to shift blame away from ministers with the scrapping of Public Health England.

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Matt Hancock on Tuesday pressed ahead with a controversial plan to scrap Public Health England and replace it with new body designed specifically to deal with pandemics and other health threats.

The health secretary said the Covid-19 response work of PHE is to be merged with NHS Test and Trace and some of the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre to form the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), which will be headed by Tory peer Dido Harding.

The move has been sparked by ministers, unhappy and frustrated with the body’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

It has caused bafflement in some circles largely due to the fact Public Health England (PHE) is part of the Department of Health and is therefore ultimately the responsibility of those very same ministers, not least Matt Hancock himself.

Ahead of the announcement, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth pointed out just that.

Scientists and NHS trusts also said if ministers are unhappy with PHE’s performance they have only themselves blame as it is directly under ministerial control.

And regardless of which body is contributing to decisions, since the beginning of the pandemic the government has repeatedly insisted that ministers are ultimately responsible for decisions made.

Here are five times Public Health England wasn’t to blame for the UK’s terrible coronavirus response that so far has led to the fifth highest death toll in the world...

1) The original lockdown

The UK announced a national lockdown on March 23, the same date as Germany but more than a week after many other European countries.

Where the UK lagged even farther behind was in the introduction of even basic restrictions. It was the second-to-last country in Europe to do so when on March 16 it advised against “non-essential” travel and contact with others, and asked people to avoid pubs, clubs and bars.


What was the cost of this delay? It’s impossible to say for certain what would have happened if lockdown was introduced earlier as no two countries are exactly alike – but the fact the UK has the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world suggests the effects were pretty devastating.

In June a scientific adviser to the government said the lack of speed “cost a lot of lives” and the government should have taken action earlier.

Even more damning was when professor John Edmunds, who sits on the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), said it would have been “hard” to lock down earlier as the government’s data and awareness of coronavirus was “really quite poor”.

But health secretary Matt Hancock has previously insisted in response that the government made the “right decisions at the right time”.

2) Dominic Cummings

The end of May was dominated by the furore over Dominic Cummings’ apparent breach of lockdown rules when he drove his family right across the country while the strictest restrictions were still in place.

There were widespread calls for Johnson’s top aide to be sacked but the PM stuck with him and he remains in his job today.

At the time, the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner said it had a knock on effect on how the general public subsequently behaved.

David Jamieson told BBC Radio 4′s The World At One in May programme that people are telling officers “if it is okay for Cummings, it is okay for us” and “it looks like there is one rule for us and another rule for the people in No 10 Downing Street”.

He added: “What the police are now saying to me is they are getting quite a push back, not just from some of the younger people who previously where saying why can’t I play football, why can’t I go out in the streets? They’re getting push backs from other generations of people as well.

“Now that is a bad sign, showing that confidence in the rules, confidence in government and thereby the police’s ability to enforce it has been undermined very much in the last few days.”

3) Quarantine

Given that coronavirus arrived in the UK via an infected aeroplane passenger sometime in January, it is remarkable the UK government didn’t announce a quarantine for people coming into the country from abroad until May 22.

On the day it was announced, the UK death toll from Covid-19 stood at 36,042.

4) Shaking hands

Boris Johnson continued to shake hands even as some scientists advising the government on the coronavirus outbreak were calling for the practice to stop.

Papers released by Sage in May show that some scientists were calling for an end to hugging and handshaking in early March.

On March 3, the SPI-B group of behavioural scientists said it would send an important signal about the need for good hand hygiene in stopping the spread of the disease.

However on the same day, Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that he was continuing to shake the hands of people he met.

Just a few weeks later the PM was admitted to intensive care after contracting coronavirus.

5) Face masks

The government’s decision last month to make face masks mandatory in supermarkets was met with dismay as the new rules, which some already see as long overdue, did not come into effect until days later.

In an interview with Sky News, London mayor Sadiq Khan said the “U-turn from the government is welcome news”, but added: “Time and time again slow action has put the public’s health at risk. Why wait two weeks? Why not do it from today?”

Or as one person put it:


Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, representing NHS trusts, said “years of underfunding” for PHE and public health more generally have left the country unprepared to deal with a pandemic.

He said unlike other health bodies such as NHS England, PHE – which replaced the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in 2013 under the Conservatives’ NHS reorganisation – is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care.

“This gives ministers direct control of its activities,” he said.

“So whilst it might be convenient to seek to blame PHE’s leadership team, it is important that the government reflect on its responsibilities as well.”

His comments were echoed by Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor at the Institute of Health Informatics, University College London, who said the move is a “huge concern” in the midst of a global health crisis.

“If PHE has fallen short, responsibility lies firmly with the current government and health ministers,” he said.

“Rather than a rash restructuring, a sensible approach must involve a rapid enquiry to establish lessons learned for future waves and future pandemics.”


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