Public health must not be downplayed by PHE’s abolition

By Michael Burton | 19 August 2020
  • Michael Burton

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one quango is a misfortune but to lose two looks like carelessness. Hard on the heels of scrapping Public Health England in order to cover up its own ineptitude the Government then finds it might have to do the same with Ofqual in the astonishing mess over A-level results.

There are only so many quangos a Government can abolish, then recreate, before the public begins to see that there is a pattern and that the real incompetence lies elsewhere.

This one-issue Government, elected on the basis of getting Brexit done, was a successful election machine in which loyalty to the leader was more important than being good at being a minister.

Coronavirus would have challenged even the most talented administration and this not very talented one has certainly stumbled. But to start tearing down structures like PHE while the pandemic still rages and when the wider preventative issues of public health have been recognised as integral to slowing down the spread of the virus seems reckless.

It may not have been a perfectly formed body since it was an amalgamation of many others but the creation of PHE in 2013 recognised the importance of public health and local government’s key historic role in helping to improve it.

Third rate ministers can at least be covered by a first rate Whitehall machine. But a turnover of permanent secretaries, a lack of applicants for the crucial Cabinet secretary’s post and Dominic Cummings smashing furniture at No 10 does not augur well for a stable civil service leadership.

Nor indeed does this Government appear to value one, preferring Maoist revolution at the top.

The one solid sector that continues to perform as ever during a time of crisis is local government.

Let’s hope that the imminent White Paper proposing reorganisation does not plunge this high-functioning part of the public sector into chaos as well.

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