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August 20th 2020

Public Inquiry

Scrapping Public Health England can’t ‘shift the blame’ on Covid-19 failings and is an admission of failure to properly prepare and protect

Sue Jackson

Sue Jackson

Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Scrapping Public Health England can’t ‘shift the blame’ on Covid-19 failings and is an admission of failure to properly prepare and protect

Solicitor Sue Jackson, of Hudgell Solicitors, reflects on the Government’s decision to replace Public Health England, following more than 41,000 Covid-19 deaths.

Solicitor Sue Jackson, of Hudgell Solicitors, reflects on the Government’s decision to replace Public Health England, following more than 41,000 Covid-19 deaths.

The decision to scrap Public Health England – the health body which has been responsible for preparing and responding to emergencies such as pandemics – has drawn criticism of the Government from many health experts.

Given it comes at a time when we are again seeing around 1,000 daily new cases of Covid-19 infections, it does appear a questionable time to pull apart our dedicated health agency.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have been accused by some of trying to ‘shift the blame’ for how the pandemic has claimed more than 41,000 lives, from more than 318,000 cases.

Yet, given Public Health England was an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, I fail to see how they can deflect from their responsibility.

In my view, taking such as drastic move at this time can only be seen as admission of failings throughout 2020, and also the years prior to prepare for what we have faced.

Throughout the months of lockdown we repeatedly saw Government officials take the stance that the UK had ‘taken the right decisions at the right time’. In recent weeks, however, the rhetoric, and strategy, has very slowly, but very clearly, changed.

Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country’s response to Covid-19 could have been done ‘differently’ and that the Government needed to learn lessons, admitting it ‘didn’t understand’ the virus in the ‘first few weeks and months’.

Now, we have a brand new approach announced.

The newly formed National Institute for Health Protection will bring together Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace, as well as the analytical capability of the Joint Biosecurity Centre under a single leadership team, to ‘strengthen’ public health.

In announcing this change, Mr Hancock said it will have a ‘single and relentless mission’ of protecting people from external health threats, including pandemics.

“To give ourselves the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future, we are creating a brand new organisation to provide a new approach to public health protection and resilience,” he said.

Slowly but surely, the Government finally appears to be holding up its hands and admitting that its previous approach wasn’t up to scratch.

It simply wasn’t prepared to handle Covid-19 – and that is why drastic changes now need to be made to better protect us all in the future.

Lessons have to be learned through full, independent and transparent inquiries

Public Health England – and ultimately the Government – has come into fire for many reasons throughout the pandemic, from failing to ramp up testing quickly enough to the lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) for those working in hospital and care home settings during the peak of the outbreak.

But Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth has questioned the motive for launching into a ‘time-consuming structural re-organisation mid-pandemic’, and said ‘Ultimately deficiencies over testing, tracing, PPE, leaving care homes exposed and slowness into lockdown are ministerial failures whatever Tory MPs say re PHE’.

The new National Institute for Health Protection is said to be modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, an independent agency that has taken control of the country’s response to the pandemic.

It will specifically deal with protecting the country from pandemics, merging the NHS Test and Trace scheme with the pandemic response work of Public Health England.

It is unclear who will now be responsible for all the other key public health issues that were within the remit of PHE, such as widening health inequalities between the richest and poorest.

We have seen how Covid-19 disproportionately impacted the poorest and also BAME communities, meaning tackling these structural inequalities is also vital to future preparedness for a possible resurgence, or other pandemics.

Whilst it will become effective next month, the full handover will run into next year, with the aim of boosting expertise through ‘much needed new investment’ (itself perhaps an admission of under-investment in the past).

In our work at Hudgell Solicitors, we know that the key to learning valuable lessons and improving health care is through thorough investigation when things go wrong, and complete transparency when those investigations take place.

Mr Johnson has said there will be an “independent” inquiry into the pandemic, but as yet no details have been given of its scope or timing. A public inquiry is surely the only suitable route.

Whether making these changes now is the right move is yet to be seen.

But no matter what the makeup of the body responsible, answers will still be required from the Government as to why our country, hospitals and care homes were so badly prepared, and supported, through this major health crisis.

Ultimately, we need to get to the bottom of how many lives which were lost could and should have been saved, and find a way to ensure people are much better prepared, and protected, in the future.

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