Public Health England (PHE) will be scrapped as part of plans for a new organisation responsible for dealing with pandemics, the health secretary has announced.

Matt Hancock confirmed the decision reported over the weekend to set up a body called the National Institute for Health Protection, which will also work against the threat of biological weapons and infectious diseases.

From this week it will subsume parts of PHE, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS test and trace under a single leadership team, he said in a speech on Tuesday.

A Test and Trace advert on Oxford Street in London
Image: The head of test and trace will lead the new organisation

Baroness Dido Harding, currently in charge of Whitehall’s contact tracing operation, will temporarily head the new body and lead the search for a permanent successor.

Mr Hancock said the coronavirus pandemic had “shone a light on our public health system” and that he has “learned a lot about… what needs to change”.

But he paid tribute to public public health experts’ “incredible work” and commended PHE’s research as “some of the best that’s been done” into COVID-19.

The change is coming while the latest number of daily infections stands at just over 700 because “we must do everything we can to fulfil our responsibility to the public to strengthen public health in the UK”, Mr Hancock explained.

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“If something is the right thing to do then putting off the change is usually the wrong thing to do,” he added.

Matt Hancock
‘We must strengthen our response’ – Hancock

It follows several reports that ministers have been frustrated with the way PHE has dealt with the coronavirus crisis.

The government adopted a new way of counting daily deaths from COVID-19, after concerns were raised that the method used by PHE officials overstated them.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said previously scrapping PHE would be “desperate blame-shifting” by the government.

“A structural reorganisation mid-pandemic is time consuming, energy sapping; it’s risky, indeed irresponsible,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

“And what an insulting way to treat hardworking staff who heard about this from a paywalled Sunday newspaper leaving them with questions and worries about their jobs.”

The move will also fuel speculation the government is preparing for the independent inquiry into the UK’s pandemic response promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.