UKHSA: Triumph or failure?

By Tom Ryan, researcher


Back in May 2020, at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, TPA researcher Scott Simmonds wrote that “instead of focusing on the more important remit of planning and preparing for health emergencies, PHE has been the ultimate embodiment of the nanny state”. Since then, Public Health England (PHE) has been replaced by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and another potential pandemic has emerged: monkeypox. So how are Britain’s public health institutions performing now?

It looks like the UKHSA might have improved things. When it comes to the matter of monkeypox, our public health institutions have been notably more effective. The UK was the first to identify and report a case of monkeypox on the 7th of May, a possibility which had been ignored in other countries due to the rare incidence of the disease outside of Africa.

As the outbreak developed, the UKHSA has published regular updates in the form of an ‘epidemiological overview’ starting in June 2022, and recurring every three or four days. This data is at a very high standard and is regularly referenced by medical journals, newspapers and public officials across the world.

Perhaps most importantly, an effort to vaccinate at-risk individuals has hit the ground running. The UKHSA has now acquired 100,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine, while Spain only received 5,300 doses. There are at least 18 clinics offering monkeypox vaccinations in London, which have used UKHSA’s data to target people who are at risk.

Overall, it looks like the UK’s new public health institution has learned important lessons from the failures of PHE. While politicians continue to posture and preen about their nanny state obsessions, like obesity, UKHSA has shifted focus to monitoring and preventing future pandemics. 

Of course, things are far from perfect. The UKHSA’s sister agency, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, continues to pump out the kind of nanny state activism that we saw with the old PHE. Whether that’s promoting the bonkers Khan Review or pursuing policies that have little to do with public health, like language services for temporary migrants. And many third party campaigning organisations, blatantly lobbying for nanny state policies, are still being propped up by the taxpayer

But on the key public health challenge of the day - pandemics - other countries have acted slowly to distribute vaccines and properly track outbreaks. The UK has been world beating in this regard. Public health officials might have finally decided to focus on the things that matter to taxpayers.

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