The chair of the County Durham Health and Wellbeing Board has written to the Government outlining serious concerns over plans to replace Public Health England (PHE).
Earlier this month, the Government announced it would be creating a National Institute for Health Protection in place of PHE and NHS Test and Trace.
Cllr Lucy Hovvels, who is also Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for adults and health, has questioned the timing of the proposal – in the midst of a global pandemic – and is urging ministers to think very carefully about the consequences.
In her letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, she explains how existing health inequalities in the county have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“With an ageing population, high levels of obesity and mental health issues, as well as the wider economic issues, County Durham is likely to see long term challenges,” she writes.
“PHE has supported the local system in many of these key programmes of work and we would be seeking reassurance that this will continue. We feel it is imperative to be involved in the design of the new Institute of Health Protection and would like clarity about how this will take place.”
Cllr Hovvels goes on to highlight the wealth of experience in dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases such as seasonal flu at a regional level and argues that recent challenges, such as limitations of tracing and delays in testing availability and results, are a consequence of “fragmented national structures.”
The letter also sets out the broader role PHE plays in promoting and protecting the health of residents in County Durham.
This includes the Health Protection Assurance and Development Group, which was set up by County Durham’s Director of Public Health to oversee a range of key issues, such as screening programmes, immunisation programmes, outbreaks and transmittable diseases.
The successful work of the PHE North East Public Mental Health Network to address the factors that contribute to mental health issues is also highlighted. This includes drugs and alcohol, bereavement, finances and employment.
Another area where PHE has played a key role in County Durham is oral health. Councils have a statutory duty to consider the fluoridation of water and PHE has been an essential advisor on this subject. The published evidence and guidance have been invaluable and allowed Durham County Council to pursue this critical public health measure.
Cllr Hovvels’ letter follows a joint letter sent to Mr Hancock from the chairs of health and wellbeing boards across the North East, which raised similar concerns on behalf of the region as a whole.
Cllr Hovvels said: “This is a matter that myself and my colleagues on the County Durham Health and Wellbeing Board feel incredibly strongly about. That’s why we have written a second letter to the Health Secretary to reiterate our concerns and provide further details about the vital work regional PHE teams undertake in County Durham.
“These teams possess a wealth of local knowledge and expertise and it’s important that this is retained. We will continue to do all we can to lobby the Government to ensure the new system offers the best possible service to the people of County Durham.”