Former Tory minister accuses Matt Hancock of shifting blame for coronavirus blunders onto PHE

PUBLISHED: 12:14 17 August 2020 | UPDATED: 12:14 17 August 2020

Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives in Downing Street. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

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A former Tory minister turned peer has accused Matt Hancock of heaping blame for coronavirus response errors onto Public Health England (PHE), adding that the body can only act on ministerial orders.

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David Cameron’s former cabinet minister Andrew Lansley said Hancock was trying to distract the public over his own poor decision-making during the pandemic by shifting blame onto PHE.

Hancock is expected to announce plans to replace the public health body with a German-style pandemic response agency following a spate of accusations it failed in its duty to protect the country against a pandemic.

Media outlets have reported that both prime minister Boris Johnson and Hancock are eager to see the body shut down and replaced, with many insiders suggesting the organisation owned some of the blame for the decision to scrap mass testing early on in the pandemic.

Speaking on LBC radio, Lansley said Hancock could not scrap PHE because it was a statutory body and questioned his motives.

“I simply don’t understand what he’s attempting to achieve by this that couldn’t be achieved by other means.”

“Remember Public Health England is not an independent body, it is an executive agency of the Department of Health. If the secretary of state wants Public Health England to do anything, he simply tells it to do something.”

Slamming Hancock’s plans to establish a new agency based off the Robert Koch Institute, he said: “There is nothing in this proposal that would enable him in my mind to do anything that he can’t already do with his existing powers.”

He added: “Some of the blame has been placed upon Public Health England in circumstances where the decisions concerned were the decisions of government, and government should take responsibility for its decisions.”

Lansley explained Public Health England’s job is to advise ministers on ways to improve the country’s pandemic response strategy.

“The decisions are the secretary of state’s,” and not PHE’s, he stressed.

Questioning Hancock’s motives, he pointed to the decision to ramp up testing in May as evidence he had the authority to change the country’s coronavirus response.

“It is perfectly clear he had the power to do [ramp up testing] so what is it he didn’t have power to do back in April or March or February?” the former Commons leader asked.

He also took a swipe at government plans to install a German-style pandemic response unit suggesting it should have instead focused on giving local authorities more power to implement coronavirus restrictions.

“What should have happened more... is to have worked more directly with local authorities and directors of public health to mobilise local authority activity.

“That, to my mind, is closer to recognising the advantages of the German federal system.”

He continued: “In my view, if you wanted to look back and say what were the decisions in the past that probably had the biggest detrimental impact, it wasn’t legislative changes a decade ago, it was spending decisions made about five, six, seven years ago... which cut budgets for public health.”

“I’m afraid that chicken has come home to roost in a very painful way.”

PHE was set up as an executive agency in 2013 by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt to report on ways to improve the health of the nation.

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