UK COVID-19 Update: PHE Pandemic 'Scapegoat'

Tim Locke

August 17, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

 PHE Pandemic 'Scapegoat'

Plans to replace Public Health England (PHE) with a 'National Institute for Health Protection' were reported by the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend. The new body would be based on Germany's Robert Koch Institute and would combine PHE's pandemic response work with NHS Test and Trace.

Experts and health groups have questioned the decision.

Prof Sir Simon Wessely, Regius Professor of Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, commented via the Science Media Centre: "PHE employs some of the best, brightest and most hardworking clinicians and experts we have.  There are simply not enough of them, which can partly be explained by the steady reduction in funding over the last 7 years. Perhaps we do need a more joined up structure, but we should not scapegoat PHE for the failures in the system in which they are but one cog."

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of BMA UK Council said: "We already have public health expertise in this country which is of the highest quality but despite the hard work of our colleagues in the last 6 months, substantial budget cuts and fragmentation of these services over years have hampered the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We must absolutely not allow PHE and its staff to shoulder the blame for wider failings and Government decisions."

Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said: "Years of underfunding for Public Health England, and public health work more widely, has resulted in the UK not being properly prepared to tackle a pandemic such as COVID-19. For example, the local authority public health grant has been cut by 25% in real terms over the last 5 years."

Cancer Delays 'Will Reduce 5-Year Survival Rates'

Progress on 5-year survival rates for some cancers will be set back by up to 8 years because of diagnosis and referral delays under COVID-19, according to analysis by by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Carnall Farrar healthcare consultancy.

Despite NHS England stressing it is open for business and urging people to seek medical advice for suspected cancer symptoms, a case large backlog remains.

It said restoring services will require:

  • A 131% increase in diagnostic capacity over 3 months

  • 124,000 to 172,000 additional COVID-19 tests per week for patients and staff to give confidence in COVID-secure cancer services

  • 305,000 urgent referrals per month for a 6-month period

It acknowledges this entails some challenges, including scale, capacity, and funding.

Doctors Pessimistic About NHS Backlog

Doctors' pessimism about the ability of the NHS to clear its backlog of cases and procedures is released in latest data from a BMA member survey of 4279 doctors in England and Wales carried out between 6 and 12 August. 

When it came to plans to resume normal levels of activity over the next few months, 70% said this was either ‘highly’ or ‘fairly’ unlikely.

Twenty-six percent said that in the last 2 weeks non-COVID demand had increased to pre-pandemic levels, while 17% reported demand was higher than before.

Cases Rising

Positive UK COVID-19 cases have been over 1000 for 6 days in a row (to Sunday 16 August) with PHE's tracking graph showing the uptick.


Tracking by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control ranks the UK's 20.7 cumulative 14-day cases per 100,000 as above Germany (16.4) and Italy (9.7) but below France (45.7), Spain (115.7), Netherlands (45.7), Belgium (65.8), Portugal (25.7), Ireland (22.3), and Greece (22.5).

CEO Who 'Blamed Staff' for COVID-19 Outbreak Resigns

The chief executive of Hillingdon Hospital in London, Sarah Tedford, has resigned for family reasons.

In July, the hospital closed to emergency admissions with Ms Tedford reported to have blamed "irresponsible" staff flouting infection control rules by not wearing a mask while at work.

The Care Quality Commission is carrying out a review of quality at the hospital. In 2018, it was rated inadequate for safety and being well-led.

The chair of the Trust Sir Amyas Morse said he respected and understood her decision: "COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for all of us, and it has also reminded so many of us of the importance of family."

Vaccine Trials

More than 100,000 people have signed up to take part in UK vaccine trials so far, the Government’s Vaccines Taskforce announced.

Researchers say they need more volunteers from groups more likely to benefit from vaccination, including the over 65s, frontline health and social care workers, and people from BAME communities.

Taskforce Chair Kate Bingham commented: "Getting 100,000 volunteers on board is a great start but we need many more people from many different backgrounds that we can call on for future studies if we are to find a vaccine quickly to protect those who need it against coronavirus."

COVID-19 Social Prescribing

The National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) has been given £5 million to help people in England stay connected and maintain health and wellbeing after COVID-19.

Activities include football, arts, singing, and improving green spaces.

NASP CEO James Sanderson commented: "Now more than ever, the pandemic has shown the value of social prescribing in helping people to stay connected, feel supported and to maintain their wellbeing."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.


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