Experts warn government attempting to blame Public Health England for coronavirus failures

PUBLISHED: 08:51 02 July 2020 | UPDATED: 09:46 02 July 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Pizza Pilgrims restaurant in east London. Photograph: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Daily Telegraph/PA Wire

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Pizza Pilgrims restaurant in east London. Photograph: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Daily Telegraph/PA Wire

Experts have warned Public Health England could be blamed for coronavirus failures as Downing Street suggested changes aimed at improving “public health capabilities”.

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Public Health England (PHE) has been criticised over its handling of the outbreak, particularly among Tory MPs, although Number 10 publicly insisted it had been “working hard to protect the country”.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Telegraph: “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.”

Speculation about the body was fuelled by Boris Johnson’s complaint about some parts of government responding “sluggishly” to the Covid-19 outbreak, which has been viewed by some in Westminster as a reference to PHE.


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Asked whether the criticism was directed at PHE, the prime minister’s official spokesman said Johnson “didn’t single out anybody in particular” in his speech on Tuesday.

Asked if the body faced the axe, the spokesman said: “Public Health England 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.”

But the spokesman also pointed out that the coronavirus recovery road map published in May said “we must learn the right lessons from this crisis and act to ensure the government’s structures are fit to cope”.

He added: “We have made changes to structure already, for instance we have set up from scratch NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

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

PHE was criticised over the lack of coronavirus testing available during the initial stages of the outbreak, which contributed to the decision to abandon contact tracing in mid-March.

But experts say it is an attempt by Downing Street to deflect away attention from the door of Number 10.

Prof Gabriel Scally, a former regional director of public health for the south-west of England, told the Guardian: “It was only a matter of time, the hunt for someone to blame. It ill befits Boris Johnson or any Tory to go about criticising PHE. This is the government seeking to identify the fall guy for a gross and widespread failure of government. It’s ministers blaming others for their own failings”, said Scally, who is a professor of public health at Bristol university.

Prof John Ashton, who was a director in the north-east of England, said: “The government is trying to pass the buck for its own failures in to PHE. But there’s been a political failure, a leadership failure and also a technical failure by PHE.

“It’s made a series of serious mistakes during the crisis in all the key areas that it’s responsible for: testing, tracing, personal protective equipment and the gathering and sharing of intelligence. It’s been poor on those counts”.

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