New pandemic-fighting unit will stop next health crisis in its track, says Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock tells Susanna Reid to ‘let him answer’

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The Health Secretary said the new agency will be a “protective shield” around the UK by being on permanent alert to respond quickly to dangerous outbreaks. UKHSA, the UK Health Security Agency, will be led by deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries. Its “sole job” will be to protect the nation by working with “zeal” in good times and bad. Mr Hancock said: “I want everybody at UKHSA, at all levels, to wake up every day with a zeal to plan for the next pandemic.  

“The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the world-leading capabilities of the country’s public health science, and it has also shown the challenges of protecting the nation’s health are changing at an unprecedented pace, as new types of threats emerge.”

The Health Secretary UKHSA will be the country’s permanent standing capacity to plan, prevent and respond to external threats to health.

“UKHSA will work with partners around the world and lead the UK’s global contribution to health security research,” he added.

“UKHSA will be tasked to prevent external threats to health, deploying the full might of our analytic and genomic capability on infectious diseases… in all, helping to cast a protective shield over the nation’s health.

“Even after years without a major public health threat, UKHSA must be ready, not just to do the science, but to respond at unbelievable pace.”

 Mr Hancock said it was vital to have an agency with “total focus” on preventing and responding to pandemics as well as other threats like bioterrorism.

UKHSA launches on April 1 and is expected to be fully operational by autumn.

It will replace Public Health England (PHE), NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC).

At the start of the pandemic the government was said to have become frustrated with the bureaucratic response of PHE and its refusal to allow external laboratories to help.

Last summer, Boris Johnson admitted to frustrations over “the parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move”.

Different repsonsbilities for dealing with a pandemic were spread across agencies, 

The UK also had limited test and trace abilities when the coronavirus crisis struck.

But the NHS Test and Trace covid app was the second-most downloaded in the country last year, coming second only to  Zoom after 21 million people signed up.

Mr Hancock said he was “proud” of the work done by PHE, NHS Test and Trace and the JBC over the last year.

But he said the government has learned a “huge amount” about the importance of health bodies “working together as one big team – breaking down silos, working as a system”.

The Cabinet minister said the vaccines programme has been a template of how governments can get things done by bringing together science, enterprise and the NHS to develop.

“We will now build on these foundations a dedicated, mission-driven, national institution for health security that brings all these capabilities together in our ability to respond with total focus on the prevention and response to pandemics, communicable diseases and external threats to health,” he said. 

Dr Harries said the agency will be “relentless in its mission” to rapidly identify and respond to new threats.

”The pandemic has put the UK’s health security capabilities in sharp focus and the UKHSA will change the way we approach health protection,” she said.

“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.”

Former British Gas boss Ian Peters will chair the new agency.

He said: “We are at a watershed moment in history, dealing with a global pandemic and soon we’ll be moving our focus to preventing such health emergencies in future, while playing a key role in reducing health inequalities. The UKHSA will be at the heart of protecting the British people from health threats for decades to come.”

Ian Hudspeth, from the Local Government Association, said the new system must recognise the health inequalities between the rich and poor that have been exposed by the pandemic.

He added: “Public health teams in councils have been at the forefront of the tremendous local response to the pandemic and we look forward to working with the new UK Health Security Agency.

“We have learnt that responding to and recovering from an outbreak of this scale should start at the local level, working closely with national agencies.”

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