World-renowned cancer expert and Daily Express columnist Professor Karol Sikora, said: “Many things have shocked me in this pandemic but the way PHE handled the data on fatalities was disgraceful. Everybody who ever tested positive for the virus subsequently died was counted as a corona death even if they had cancer or a road accident. For that error alone, reform was required. Sadly, it has been mistake after mistake and a shake-up is long overdue.”
PHE, which employs 5,500 staff and whose responsibilities include crisis response and promoting healthy living, will be replaced by the National Institute for Health Protection.
This will be modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute and set up before a feared second wave of coronavirus cases this autumn.
Rumours that time was up for the agency circulated long before coronavirus struck.
But the organisation knew the final straw had come when Boris Johnson said the response to the pandemic had been “sluggish”.
Last month, the agency was embroiled in controversy after it was revealed reported deaths included people who tested positive for COVID-19 months before they died.
It meant there was huge variation in daily deaths totals from PHE – sometimes double what NHS England was reporting.
Other UK nations only included those who died within 28 days of a positive test.
Professor Sikora said: “We are tragically still seeing a small number of people dying and that cannot be forgotten – but it is not nearly as bad as PHE was making out.
“I’m seriously angry about it, the country deserves more accurate information. I dread to think the impact that those numbers had on policy decisions.
“It’s not just poor data.
“Pandemic preparedness, protective equipment, testing for virus and antibody, contact tracing, communication – so much has gone wrong.
“And at Easter, as we approached the peak, PHE shut down for four days’ holiday.”
Healthy eating campaigners have pilloried PHE for years for issuing confusing messages.
NHS consultant cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra claimed: “PHE has been putting the interests of the food industry ahead of health. And as a result, we’re fatter and sicker than ever.
“Perhaps most sinister is that they have tried to silence independent doctors from challenging their food-industry-influenced dietary advice.”
PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie, currently paid £190,000, is tipped to be replaced by Dido Harding, who heads up the NHS Test and Trace service.
The new chief will report to the Department of Health and Social Care and to Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer.
The change will be effective within the next month but will take until the spring to complete.
PHE declined to comment but the Department of Health said: “We must learn the right lessons from this crisis to ensure we are in the strongest possible position to respond to any future threat.”