Matt Hancock today unveiled a new pandemic-fighting body that will replace Public Health England and protect the UK in the face of future disease outbreaks.
The Health Secretary said the UK Health Security Agency will begin work next month and its ‘sole job’ will be to ‘plan, prevent and respond to external threats to health’.
Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England who has been a mainstay at Downing Street press conferences throughout the Covid pandemic, will be put at the helm.
Mr Hancock said the UKSA — which has originally meant to be called the National Institute of Health Protection — will initially focus on fighting Covid, before tackling future viral outbreaks or biochemical attacks at ‘unbelievable pace’.
Dr Harries has been advising the Government throughout the current pandemic and oversaw the UK’s response to the Russian novichok poisonings in 2018.
PHE is being axed following widespread criticism of its handling of the Covid crisis, which Boris Johnson slammed as ‘sluggish’ last year.
PHE’s health improvement work, which includes tackling obesity and cutting down on smoking, will be passed to the Department of Health.
UKSA will be fully up and running by the autumn and will bring NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which advises on lockdowns, under one roof.
It came as it emerged the Test and Trace app was the second most downloaded app in the country last year, after Zoom.
Matt Hancock today launched a new pandemic-fighting body that will replace Public Health England and protect the UK from future infectious disease outbreaks
Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England who has been a mainstay at the Downing Street Covid press conferences, will be put at the helm
Making the announcement today at a press conference, Mr Hancock said: ‘UKSA, as it will be known, will be this country’s permanent standing capacity to plan, prevent and respond to external threats to health…
‘UKSA will work with partners around the world and lead the UK’s global contribution to health security research.
WHAT IS THE UKSA?
The UK Health Security Agency — which was originally meant to be called the National Institute of Health Protection — will launch on April 1.
Initially its work will focus on the continued fight against coronavirus.
But once the UK gets on top of the Covid crisis, UKSA will start preparing for future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
The body will also advise the Government on biochemical attacks on the UK.
UKSA will bring together Public Health England, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS Test and Trace.
All the organisations, which ultimately answer to the Department of Health, will basically be streamlined and run from under one roof.
The body will be closely connected to local public health teams who have been carrying out their own contact tracing programmes.
‘Next, UKSA will be tasked to prevent external threats to health, deploying the full might of our analytic and genomic capability on infectious diseases… in all, helping to cast a protective shield over the nation’s health.
‘Even after years without a major public health threat, UKSA must be ready, not just to do the science, but to respond at unbelievable pace.’
He added: ‘This isn’t just an agency, it’s job is to provide professional leadership here and around the world.’
UKSA is the final name for the National Institute of Health Protection, which was set up last August when it was announced PHE would be dismantled.
Baroness Dido Harding, who was originally tipped for the top UKSA job and has also overseen NHS Test and Trace, will step down as head of the department next month.
Baroness Harding, who was also speaking at the Local Government Association’s Annual Public Health Conference today, revealed the contact tracing app was downloaded by 21million people last year.
She said only the video calling application Zoom had been downloaded more times. Zoom saw an extraordinary surge in downloads after the Government made working from home a legal requirement.
At the helm of UKSA, Dr Harries will be in control of much of the country’s long-term coronavirus fight and future responses to similar outbreaks.
She has been defensive of the Government’s actions during the pandemic even in the face of critics and evidence suggesting it could have saved more lives by acting faster during the first wave.
Dr Harries defended the UK’s decision to stop testing the public for coronavirus in spring 2020, saying it was ‘not appropriate’.
She later said there was no proof that doing more testing would have saved more lives, although it is the approach the Government is now following to control Covid outbreaks.
On testing everyone suspected of having the virus, Dr Harries said in a briefing last March: ‘There comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention,’ the Financial Times reported.
The UK had stopped testing people because PHE – responsible for the system at the time, before NHS Test & Trace was set up – didn’t have enough capacity.
It was capable of doing far fewer tests than the hundreds of thousands of people getting infected of coronavirus would have demanded.
As a result, everyone who thought they might have coronavirus was simply instructed to stay at home and wait for it to blow over, or to get medical help if they became seriously ill.
Dr Harries later admitted the UK might have done more testing if it had been able to, saying: ‘If we had unlimited capacity, and the ongoing support beyond that, then we perhaps would choose a slightly different approach.’