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New UK health security body to launch from April

by Emma Wilkinson
24 March 2021

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A new UK-wide public health and disease security organisation will be formally in place from April, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.

The UK Health Security Agency will bring together Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre to protect the population from future health threats as well as continuing to tackle Covid-19.

It will be headed by deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, Mr Hancock told the Annual Public Health Conference.

More detail is expected in the coming days about how health promotion activities, such as obesity and smoking cessation, will be managed in the future.

He said he was so proud of what PHE, NHS Tests and Trace, JBC, and local and national government directors of public health had achieved over the past year but it was time to build on those foundations to create ‘a dedicated mission driven national institution for health security, that brings together all these capabilities’ to respond to pandemics, communicable disease and external threats such as bioterrorism.

‘As we saw at the start of last year, when a new pathogen mutates it can spread dangerously fast. UKHSA must be ready, not just to do the science, but then to respond at unbelievable pace.’

‘Dr Jenny Harries brings huge local, regional and national experience to the role and is perfectly placed to help us not only learn lessons from the Covid-19 response, but to keep us in a state of readiness, primed to respond to infectious diseases and other external health threats’.

He added: ‘UKHSA will be an essential partner for us all, leading on health security for the whole of the United Kingdom, collaborating with devolved administrations and the public health agencies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and crucially, working in partnership with directors of public health, and our partners in local government.’

Plans to replace PHE with a new health protection body were first announced in summer 2020. Initially known as The National Institute for Health Protection, Baroness Dido Harding had been leading it in an interim role.

The changes had been put in place to overcome bureaucracy and teams working in silos as ministers admitted that some initial response including testing capacity had been slow to get off the ground.

Dr Jenny Harries, incoming UKSHA chief executive, said: ‘The pandemic has put the UK’s health security capabilities in sharp focus and the UKHSA will change the way we approach health protection.

‘With the creation of the UKHSA, we have an unprecedented opportunity to build on the scientific and operational strength that has been developed, learn from the past and further develop strong bonds with health protection leadership from global to local, to ensure we are ready for the challenges of the future.

‘The UKHSA will be agile in its responses, maximise the benefits of high quality data, be relentless in its mission to rapidly identify and respond to new threats whilst working seamlessly with academia, scientists, industry and local communities.’

This story first appeared on our sister title, Pulse.