The flagship public health body set up by Boris Johnson to fight the pandemic is in turmoil, with imminent plans to cut jobs by up to 40% and suspend routine Covid testing in hospitals and care homes to save money.
Sources in Whitehall told the Guardian that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), led by Dr Jenny Harries, is in a state of disarray, with morale low and fearful it will not be funded to deal with a resurgence of the pandemic. Public health experts have warned that the “alarming” cuts could cost lives.
More than 800 staff are expected to be lost to vital health protection teams across the country over the next few months, a 40% reduction from the current 2,000 staff. An insider said people were given two weeks’ notice that their contracts were being terminated early, and the way it was handled was similar to the “recent situation at P&O”.
Some other teams across the organization have also been told they need to cut full-time equivalent staff by 40%.
After the Treasury cut its budget to deal with Covid, the UKHSA is now proposing to health ministers to suspend regular asymptomatic testing in hospitals and care homes from May to save money before a possible winter peak of cases.
Sources within the organization said funding for asymptomatic testing in high-risk settings was only enough to cover six months a year, and senior officials believe it would be best saved for later in the year. ‘year.
The proposals come after the government sharply reduced its provision of free testing to the general public as part of its ‘Living with Covid’ plan, with the previous year’s budget of £15billion slashed by around 90 %. At the time, the government said asymptomatic testing would continue in high-risk settings while prevalence was still high.
Public health experts have warned that cuts to testing and health protection staff are “irresponsible”, short-sighted and risk a resurgence of Covid, particularly among health and social care workers.
Covid prevalence levels in England dropped significantly to 1 in 17 people in the week ending April 16, from 1 in 14 the previous week. However, officials said they still consider this level a high prevalence.
Professor Maggie Rae, chair of the School of Public Health which represents 4,000 public health professionals across the UK, said: ‘If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s the importance of having a properly funded public health system that is able to prepare for and respond to threats to our health.
“The government has consistently underfunded public health services that are there to protect and improve health for all. Not only failing to strengthen the public health system, but continuing to shrink it so deeply is irresponsible and threatens the health of everyone in society, especially the most vulnerable.
Dr Jyotsna Vohra, director of policy and public affairs at the Royal Society for Public Health, said: ‘It is deeply concerning to hear of staff cuts at UKHSA while we are still in the midst of the pandemic. Strong and consistent health protection messages and activities are essential at this time.
“Taking away free asymptomatic testing for health and social care workers seems irresponsible. With high exposure to the virus and to our elderly and most vulnerable members of our population, health and social care personnel need to have as much confidence as possible in their infectious status. Asymptomatic testing provides this.
“At a time when infection rates are still high, it feels like we’re saving pennies at the cost of pounds, or worse, lives,” Vohra said.
Labor also criticized proposals to cut more testing for NHS staff. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “With the NHS in a permanent state of crisis and patients waiting longer than ever for care, the government cannot seriously consider cutting the support.
“Patients need to know that they will be safe when going to hospital and care homes. These proposals risk leaving the NHS unprotected and unprepared. »
UKHSA staff told the Guardian that job cuts and reduced funding for public health measures had left a “burnt out” and demoralized group of the organization’s permanent staff. A source said many of the remaining employees were in an “ever-increasing state of anger and despair at the organization’s leadership and approach to its people and strategy”.
Many are also angry at a debacle affecting around 300 UKHSA staff, who were told they were wrongly given a £3,700 weighting in London and that it would be scrapped. The organization is now in talks with its unions about the episode.
The job cuts are a mixture of the elimination of fixed-term contracts and the redeployment or notice of civil service personnel. “Many, many people are jumping ship,” said a third source, with some senior politicians at director level saying in pairs that only one or none of them would be able to keep their jobs.
The UKHSA was launched with great fanfare by Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary, in 2021, bringing together former Public Health England, its successor, the National Institute for Health Protection, and NHS Test and Trace. Johnson had ordered the new body after losing faith in Public Health England’s handling of the pandemic during the first national lockdown.
Asked about plans to further reduce testing, the UKHSA highlighted the ‘Living with Covid’ plan and said all decisions would be made by ministers. A Department of Health and Social Care source said the UKHSA submission had not yet been received but would be considered in the context of the Living with Covid plan.
In response to the staff reductions, Paul Cain, chief executive of health protection operations, said: “In line with the government’s Living with Covid-19 plan, we are adjusting the size of our workforce as has always been planned. Interim contracts are in the process of being terminated and the persons concerned are updated. At the same time, we will build new capabilities based on lessons from Covid.
“Those who have joined NHS Test & Trace and Public Health England to manage the pandemic response have played a crucial role and we thank them once again for their efforts.”
The ‘Living with Covid’ plan does not refer to UKHSA’s reduction plans, instead stating: ‘UKHSA will continue to lead the wider health protection emergency planning and response system , championing health safety across the UK.