National Institute for Health Protection takes over COVID-19 pandemic response from PHE

Matt Hancock has announced that the newly formed body will have the mission of “protecting people from external threats to this country’s health”.

Matt Hancock

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Matt Hancock said that the National Institute for Health Protection would “help maintain vigilance for years to come”

From 18 August 2020, the newly formed National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) will combine the activities of Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.

Hancock, who gave the details during a speech hosted by Policy Exchange UK, said that the NIHP would have a “single and relentless mission; protecting people from external threats to this country’s health”, including biological weapons, pandemics and infectious diseases “of all kinds”.

He added that, although the new organisation had been “conceived amidst crisis”, it would “help maintain vigilance for years to come”.

The NIHP’s responsibilities will include the COVID-19 testing programme and contact tracing, and working with local directors of public health and local authorities on the frontline of the COVID-19 response, as well as specialist epidemiology and surveillance of all infectious diseases.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre will also operate under the NIHP.

Claire Anderson, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, said that regardless of administrative changes, the government must ensure it delivers a “compelling vision” for public health and prevention.

“This must include making the most of pharmacy to reduce the backlog of care from COVID-19 and better manage demand across the health service. Pharmacies play a vital role in supporting prevention, healthy living and tackling health inequalities, including in communities at a higher risk from COVID-19,” she said. 

Anderson added that while it was “encouraging” to hear Hancock’s commitment to embedding health improvements across government and the NHS, including pharmacy and primary care, such a commitment needed to be supported by funding after years of cuts to public health.

“As we look toward winter pressures, risks of a second wave of COVID-19, and a potential ‘no-deal’ Brexit, it’s vital that we don’t lose time amid these changes,” she added. 

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, has been appointed interim executive chair of the NIHP, while Michael Brodie, currently chief executive of the NHS Business Services Authority, will take up the post of PHE’s interim chief executive.

Duncan Selbie, PHE’s outgoing chief executive, will take on a new role as senior advisor to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on global and public health to “support PHE and NIHP throughout this transition”.

Describing PHE’s other health responsibilities as “absolutely vital”, Hancock said the government would “use this moment to consult widely on how we can embed health improvement across the board”, with more engagement to follow over the coming weeks.

In a press release published alongside Hancock’s announcement, the government said that DHSC and PHE experts would be engaging on the available options regarding the future of PHE’s remaining health improvement functions, including how to support a successful wider public health system.

“PHE’s work on the pandemic in the early stages and since stands testament to the professionalism and unremitting hard work of my colleagues, and bought precious time for the NHS and government to prepare,” Selbie said.

Harding said that the changes were “designed to strengthen our response, and to radically ramp up our fight against [COVID-19] … whilst also protecting PHE’s essential work beyond COVID that is so important for the nation’s health”.

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The Pharmaceutical Journal, National Institute for Health Protection takes over COVID-19 pandemic response from PHE;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2020.20208276

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