New UK Health and Security agency: What is it and why is it already facing criticism?

By Aoife McDowell / April 7, 2021
Health and Security Agency

Earlier this week, Secretary of Health for the UK, Matt Hancock, announced the introduction of a brand new public health agency. This new public body, named the UK Health and Security Agency, has been set up to address external health threats, including infectious diseases such as coronavirus. The brand new organisation has seemingly been created as a response to the current pandemic, but with concerns already arising around its creation, just how effective will it be?

What is the new Health and Security Agency and how is it different?

The agency’s main focus is preparation for future pandemics and health emergencies. The new body will aim to bring  together the different organisations that have been involved with the prevention and treatment of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK. The new agency blends together the work of NHS Test and Trace, Public Health England, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

The new body aims to not only address health on a national scale but also on a smaller, more local scale too. The agency will attempt to use the collective resources and strengths of the local system, the NHS, local authorities, the voluntary sector, and others to improve health on a local scale. This will be a vital part of the agency’s work.

The new UK Health and Security Agency will eventually replace the current Public Health England body, transforming the landscape of public health throughout 2021.

Why has it been changed?

The new agency has been set up as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the UK was seemingly one of the most unprepared countries and failed to contain the disease as much as other countries. The UK currently has had approximately 4.35 million coronavirus cases and recorded more than 127,000 deaths.  Britain had one of the highest death rates in Europe for a number of months and was the first country in Europe to surpass 100,000 deaths due to the virus. 

The official details on the new agency state that the UK’s “experiences of the coronavirus pandemic show that we need to be vigilant to external threats at all times, with the right skills and capabilities in place, and that we must go further to prevent the underlying health conditions that have a bearing on how vulnerable we are to those threats”.

The agency will continue to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and will work to prevent further health emergencies or pandemics.

Problems with the new Health and Security agency

The announcement of the new agency was met with concerns and hesitancy from some leading health figures for a number of reasons. Firstly, many health officials fear the information given has been too vague and not enough information has been given on how the agency will function effectively. Given the UK’s track record during the pandemic, with a disastrous start to their track and trace system and a delayed response to the pandemic, many worry that this new agency might be more of the same. Despite the agency launching on 1 April, little is still known about what resources and funding it will have along with what work it will be doing. Many of those who have been employed by the new agency haven’t got an exact idea of their role, despite the agency already going online.

Health professionals have also raised concerns about the new agency’s main focus on external threats and future pandemics, as they believe this will leave the country open to internal health threats. Currently, the UK has  the longest waiting list for cancer patients since records began, a steady increase of sexually transmitted diseases per year and massive health disparities between the rich and poor.  More focus on external threats would neglect these areas, which clearly do not get enough attention or money as it is. Health inequalities are particularly important as people from lower socio economic backgrounds in England were twice as likely to die from coronavirus than those from more affluent neighbourhoods. 

There have also been concerns over the appointment of Dr. Jenny Harries  as lead of the new agency. Harries , the current Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, has previously faced criticism for her handling of the pandemic.  Most notably she said in the earlier stages of the pandemic that masks should not be worn, that widespread testing was “not an appropriate intervention”, and that bans on mass gatherings were not necessary.

Will the new UK Health and Security Agency work?

At these early stages, it is impossible to tell how the security agency will pan out and if it will be the transformative system the government has branded it as. In light of the UK’s past handling of this pandemic and other health emergencies, and with leading experts voicing concerns already, it is clear that the agency will have a lot of work to do right  from the beginning in order to reassure the public.

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Aoife McDowell

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