The flagship public health quango launched by Matt Hancock during the pandemic is set to purge 40 per cent of its staff and scale back Covid tests amid budget cuts.
Whitehall sources claim 800 workers will be axed in the coming months from the taxpayer-funded UK Health Security Agency, which employs around 2,000 staff.
The agency has also proposed suspending routine testing for Covid in hospitals and care homes during summer to save money for a potential wave in winter.
Health chiefs say there is only enough cash to do asymptomatic testing in high risk areas for six months and it should be saved for later this year, The Guardian reports.
The UKHSA told MailOnline the job cuts only applied to temporary staff whose contracts were simply not being extended ‘as was always planned’.
But morale at the UKHSA is said to be at rock bottom and there are fears it will not be able to respond to a fresh outbreak of the virus.
Set up as a replacement for Public Health England (PHE) last April, the UKHSA enjoyed billions of pounds of emergency pandemic funding in its first year.
But its funding has been stripped back as part of the Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan, with the 2021 total Covid budget of £15billion slashed by about 90 per cent.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is axing 800 staff amid budget cuts. The quango is run by Dr Jenny Harries
Disgraced former Health Secretary Matt Hancock launched the UKHSA with great fanfare on April 1, 2021, with the aim of halting future pandemics
Disgraced ex-Health Secretary Mr Hancock launched the UKHSA with great fanfare on April 1, 2021, with the aim of halting future pandemics.
It took over from the beleaguered PHE which had been accused by Boris Johnson of being too ‘sluggish’ in the first year of Covid.
Dr Jenny Harries, who was a regular at Downing Street press conferences throughout the Covid pandemic, was put at the helm.
Announcing its replacement, Mr Hancock said the UKHSA’s main objective was to ‘plan, prevent and respond’ to health threats.
But there are now concerns that it will be unable to deliver.
WHAT IS THE UKSA?
The UK Health Security Agency launched on April 1, 2021.
Its main objective was to focus on the fight against coronavirus.
But the UKHSA is also responsible for preparing for, and responding to, future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
The body also advises the Government on biochemical attacks on the UK.
It brought together Public Health England, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS Test and Trace.
The agency was set up under the instruction of Boris Johnson, who accused PHE of being too ‘sluggish’ in the first year of Covid.
The UKHSA is closely connected to local public health teams who have been carrying out their own contact tracing programmes.
As well as infectious diseases, the agency is responsible for running public health campaigns – including putting up posters telling Britons to stop smoking.
Professor Maggie Rae, chief of the Faculty of Public Health which represents 4,000 health professionals across the UK, said the move threatened ‘the health of society’.
She told The Guardian: ‘If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it is the importance of having a properly funded public health system that is able to prepare for, and respond to, threats to our health.
‘Government has consistently underfunded public health services which are there to protect and improve health for all.
‘To not only fail to bolster the public health system, but to continue to cut it so deeply, is irresponsible and threatens the health of all in society, particularly the most vulnerable.’
The UKHSA has been told to cut its workforce to around 1,200 with staff in local health protection teams who are on temporary contacts on the chopping block.
The Guardian reports that some other teams in the organisation have been told to get rid of 40 per cent of full-time staff.
One source said remaining employees were in a state of ‘ever-increasing anger and despair at the organisation’s leadership and approach to its staff and strategy’.
The job cuts are a mixture of ending fixed-term contracts and redeploying or giving notice to civil service payroll staff.
In response to the staff cuts, Paul Cain, director general for health protection operations, said: ‘In line with the government’s Living with Covid-19 plan we are adjusting the size of our workforce as was always planned.
‘Temporary staff contracts are being brought to an end and those affected are being updated. At the same time, we will build new capability based on the lessons of Covid.
‘Those that joined NHS Test & Trace and Public Health England to manage the pandemic response played a crucial role and we thank them for their efforts once again.’
Meanwhile, the UKHSA has proposed scaling back asymptomatic testing in hospitals and care homes from May to save money for winter.
The Government scrapped free tests for the vast majority of people at the start of this month but promised to keep swabs in high risk settings while infection rates were high.
Sources in the agency believe there is only enough funding to cover six months in a year and believe it would be better used in winter when Covid hospital and death rates are typically higher.
Ministers have not defined what high prevalence would look like but the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report suggested one in 17 people had the virus in the week to April 16.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it has not received the submission from the UKHSA but it would be looked at in the context of No10’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan.
But Labour has warned the potential move risks another deadly outbreak of the disease, especially if NHS and care home workers are not being tested regularly.
Shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said: ‘While the NHS is in a permanent state of crisis and patients are waiting longer than ever for care, the government can’t seriously be considering stripping away support even further.
‘Patients need to know that they will be safe when they go into hospital and care homes. These proposals risk leaving the NHS unprotected and unprepared.’
Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s England director, said: ‘Reports of the potential scale of the job losses at the UKHSA are deeply concerning.
‘We had been working closely with the UKHSA and other unions to try to minimise job losses and are dismayed that the announcement to end those fixed-term contracts was not discussed with the trade unions at a recent national meeting.
‘Ending routine testing in hospitals and care homes must not lead to them becoming a breeding ground for COVID-19.
‘If this change happens, for it to be effective its impact must be closely monitored and all relevant data published more frequently so changes can be made quickly to protect staff and patients.
‘COVID-19 remains a safety risk and employers must continue to do all they can to protect staff at work and comply with health and safety law.’