The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore many questions about how well public health services are resourced and organised in England. During the first wave of the virus, amid high-profile challenges around testing, PPE guidance and supply, questions arose about the country’s preparedness for a pandemic. The impact of cuts to public health funding over the years and the role of PHE were brought into the spotlight with far reaching consequences.
In August 2020, Matt Hancock announced the dissolution of PHE and the creation of a new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) - charged with protecting the nation’s health from external threats such as pandemics, infectious diseases and biological threats - which will assimilate NHS Test and Trace, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and PHE’s infectious disease unit.
This leaves unanswered questions about the future of PHE’s other vital functions including its role in addressing the broader determinants of health, and the implications of these reforms for the wider health sector. Trust leaders have raised concerns about the long term impact the pandemic will have on health inequalities and how this will be addressed, and flagged risks to preventative services including screening programmes, the national cancer registry, and public mental health functions, all of which depend on the synergy between national coordination and local expertise.
We are concerned about the timing of this reconfiguration, however there is a clear opportunity to make positive changes through this new structure. This briefing sets out what we see as being the key issues to tackle as part of the restructure of public health functions over the coming months.