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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

The Wrong Decision at the Wrong Time

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

In between the Westminster politicians and national institutions we see on TV and the newspapers, and the local authorities and organisations that serve their communities, there exists an entire middle tier of public sector bodies and agencies. Many of them are not particularly well-known, but their work is nonetheless vital to the smooth running of our country. In the continuing struggle against the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most important of these is Public Health England.

Established in 2013 by the coalition government, Public Health England held responsibility for a wide variety of public health duties that compliment or take the pressure off the more traditional services offered by our National Health Service. Much of this was focused on improving our resident’s quality of life and keeping them out of hospitals and GP surgeries in the first place. If you’ve ever looked for advice on losing weight or quitting smoking, the odds are that it was either Public England Health, or an organisation contracted by them, that was providing it. Until last week, when it was announced by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock that Public Health England would be abolished and replaced by the National Institute for Health Protection, a new organisation that will specifically deal with the threat of infectious disease and the national NHS Test and Trace operation.

My first issue with this announcement is the timing. Anybody who has ever been through some kind of organisational restructure, whether in the private or public sector, knows that they always involve a massive amount of disruption as the new way of doing things is bedded in. At the local level, Public Health England’s health protection teams have been an important part of the response to dealing with flare-ups of coronavirus infections. They do not need to be distracted with worries about their jobs at a time when all our energies should be focused on containing the next stage of the pandemic.


Furthermore, the reasons for making such a huge change at a critical time for our country remain unclear to me. There have definitely been major shortcomings with some aspects of how the coronavirus pandemic has been handled so far, most notably in the continuing failure to set up a credible test and trace system that protects our residents and gives businesses the confidence to get back up and running again. However, having dealt with these issues for months it is my view that Public Health England is not to blame. Despite having their budget slashed by over £850 million, a 25% cut over the last five years, during the pandemic so far their contact tracers have actually reached 90% of the people on their lists compared to 50% by the private contractors used by the government. The initial decision to base our test and trace system on an app that ended up never seeing the light of day was also a failure created not by Public Health England, but by decisions made in the corridors of power in Westminster. Put it all together, and the disturbing conclusion is that the government is more interested in making Public Health England a scapegoat for their own failures than they are in making the improvements that our test and trace infrastructure desperately needs.

Abolishing Public Health England is the wrong thing to do, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. While I doubt that the government will change their decision to abolish Public Health England, at the very least they should postpone it until the coronavirus pandemic is well truly and behind us. However, if they insist on ploughing ahead I want to see councils and other local organisations involved in designing its replacement. Instead of one-size-fits-all diktats handed down from Whitehall, we need to harness the power of local health experts who know their area and know what measures will work on the ground. We have already witnessed too much confusion and disruption in the government’s response to the pandemic. Now is not the time to pile on yet more bad decisions.


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