UK scraps public health body amid criticized virus response

Matt Hancock

FILE – In this file photo dated Wednesday, May 20, 2020, Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives at Downing Street in London. The British government is scrapping Public Health England agency that has taken blame for the country’s uneven response to the coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, the work of will become part of a new body, to be called National Institute for Health Protection. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, FILE)

LONDON (AP) — The British government announced Tuesday it is scrapping a public health agency that has taken blame for the country’s uneven response to the coronavirus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the work of Public Health England will become part of a new body, the National Institute for Health Protection, which will guard against infectious diseases and biosecurity threats.

“We did not go into this crisis with the capacity for a response to a once-in-a-century-scale event,” Hancock said during a speech in London.

He said the new body would “bring together the science and the scale into one coherent whole.”

The new institute will be headed by Dido Harding, a former telecoms executive who leads the much-criticized test and trace program set up in recent months to help contain COVID-19.

Hancock said it would learn from public health agencies in South Korea and Germany, which have been praised for their strong response to the pandemic.

Public Health England has been criticized for taking an overly centralized approach to testing and contact-tracing, and of abandoning widespread testing for the virus in mid-March because it lacked the diagnostic capacity.

Its defenders argue that Britain’s Conservative governments have been cutting public health budgets for years, leaving the country ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic.

Jonathan Bell, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said Britain’s initial response to COVID-19 “did appear disjointed and insufficient.” But he said preparing for a possible second wave would be better done by “strengthening the systems we have now” rather than setting up new structures.

The U.K. has Europe’s highest official coronavirus-related death toll, with more than 40,000 deaths.


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