Matt Hancock has defended abolishing Public Health England and replacing it with a new body to tackle Covid-19, claiming the controversial move will not lead to disruption.
Ministers have been warned by major health bodies that axing PHE and launching a National Institute for Health Protection in its place is a hugely risky move that will distract staff who are working hard to prevent a second wave of coronavirus.
But the health secretary, who on Tuesday ended weeks of speculation about PHE’s future over perceived failures in its response to the pandemic by confirming it is being scrapped, has hit out at the suggestion there will be disruption.
“I don’t accept that there will be disruption. And the reason is … that we are bringing together under a single leadership these functions. Of course there will be the organisational change element of it,” Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.
Pressed on whether people working in PHE being concerned about jobs would leave, leading to a loss of expertise, Hancock replied: “No, I don’t accept that. And, in fact, we’re putting more support in and we’re hiring and the budget is going up enormously.”
Hancock said he was not typically a fan of “big reorganisations”, explaining: “I don’t think they should ever be the first port of call.”
He added: “But I think this one is absolutely the best thing to do and the best thing to do right now because we need to bring together the different parts of the response.”
The new body will be formed from a merger of PHE, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS test and trace, and will be headed by Dido Harding.
Lady Harding, who currently oversees the test and trace system, which has been criticised over its ability to reach those at risk of infection, was formerly the chief executive of Talk Talk but her time running the firm was blighted by a £400,000 fine over a data breach.
In a separate interview with LBC, Hancock defended Harding’s record. “Anybody with enormous experience like Baroness Harding will have had to face challenges in their professional career,” he said.
“I think having somebody with enormous experience, both running very large organisations in the private sector and as the chair of the board of NHS Improvement [for the] last three and a half years, she has what it takes to lead this organisation, to get it set up.
“The key thing now is to make sure that there is a seamless impact on the coronavirus response, actually that that is strengthened, and I think her leadership will be an important part in that.”
The move to abolish PHE has prompted suggestions that the government is seeking to shift blame on to the organisation over the handling of the pandemic. Jeanelle de Gruchy, the president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, stressed that staff had been working “incredibly hard day in, day out” throughout the pandemic.
“We are all learning about our response to Covid; it’s a new disease and the immense scale of it is quite incredible,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“But I can’t imagine when this is all over that blame will rest with one organisation. So what I think we as public health directors and the public health system feel is now is not the time to look at that, now is the time to really consolidate efforts, continue efforts, because we still have Covid absolutely with us now and winter is coming.”