England’s under-fire public health agency plays key role, PM’s spokesman says

Judith J. Mercado

LONDON (Reuters) – Public Health England is playing a key role in Britain’s response to the coronavirus crisis, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, responding to criticism of the body for slowness in tackling the pandemic. But he also pointed to new structures formed since the […]

LONDON (Reuters) – Public Health England is playing a key role in Britain’s response to the coronavirus crisis, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, responding to criticism of the body for slowness in tackling the pandemic.

But he also pointed to new structures formed since the crisis began, such as a test and trace system and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which brings together data analysis and epidemiological expertise to try to combat outbreaks.

In a Reuters special report, several scientists criticised Public Health England (PHE) for not helping Britain move quickly enough to implement a widespread testing regime by deciding, among other things, a narrower definition of COVID-19 than the World Health Organization and other countries.

In turn, public health officials told Reuters that the government initially ordered the agency not to share with local councils its surveillance reports.

Asked whether PHE was under threat, the spokesman said: “Public Health England are playing a key role in our response, working on important issues such as detecting, surveillance, contact-tracing and testing.

“They have been working hard to protect the country and to provide insight in our efforts to beat the virus.”

But he also pointed to the government’s roadmap, which was published in May, and suggested that structures could change in order to better fight the pandemic.

It said: “As the government navigates towards recovery, it must ensure it learns the right lessons from this crisis and acts now to ensure that governmental structures are fit to cope with a future epidemic.

The spokesman said: “Any future changes we might make would be aimed at further strengthening our public health capabilities.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Stephen Addison)

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