Plans to set up a new arm’s length body to house Public Health England may not go far enough to ensure its independence and could cost the government lost income, experts have warned.
Under the flagship policy PHE was to sit within the Department of Health and house the functions of Health Protection Agency and the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.
In its response to the Future Forum, the government announced PHE would be established as an executive agency of the DH to “ensure that expert and scientific advice is independent”.
President of the Association of Directors of Public Health Frank Atherton welcomed the decision, saying it marked a “change in direction” from the government, which last year announced it was to scrap 30 DH arm’s length bodies, including the two Public Health England is due to be paired with.
However, NHS Confederation deputy policy director Jo Webber told HSJ it did not appear the executive body would be independent enough to allow it to continue generating income from non-NHS sources as the HPA currently does.
“If that’s the case it would be good for the DH to go a bit further, otherwise there are cost implications.”
A number of different organisational forms come under the umbrella term of arm’s length bodies. The HPA was constituted as a special health authority while executive agencies included the NHS Appointments Commission.
Vice president of the Faculty of Public Health John Middleton said he would have preferred PHE to be set up as a special health authority and warned the new plan may not leave the body sufficiently arm’s length from the health secretary to win significant research income. He said staff would also prefer to retain their NHS conditions.
Most of the other public health issues raised by the NHS Future Forum, including the regulation of public health directors, were not dealt with in the government’s response but are expected to be addressed when the response to the consultation on the public health white paper Healthy Lives, Health People is published.