Baroness Dido Harding, who runs NHS Test and Trace in England, is to be the interim chief of the government’s new Health Protection Institute.
The agency – set to launch on Tuesday – will merge some of Public Health England’s (PHE) pandemic response work with the coronavirus test and trace system.
Lady Harding will run the new institute until a permanent appointment is made.
PHE has come under intense scrutiny of its response to the coronavirus crisis.
It has been criticised for the controversial decision in March to halt community testing and tracing of contacts.
But its defenders say it is being made a scapegoat for failures elsewhere in the government.
For now, PHE will continue its role in combating obesity and running other measures to prevent ill health.
A leaked memo seen by the BBC, written by the head of PHE Duncan Selbie to staff, said the aim of the new National Institute for Health Protection was to boost expertise with “much needed new investment”.
The new institute will begin work with immediate effect.
The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said the move to merge PHE’s pandemic functions with those of NHS Test and Trace raised more questions than answers, including the timing of an announcement on the scrapping of a national public health agency in the midst of a global pandemic.
RSPH chief executive Christina Marriott said: “We recognise that there have been some serious challenges in terms of our response to Covid-19, including the timing of the lockdown, the ongoing ineffectiveness of Tier 2 Track and Trace and postcode-level data previously not being available to directors of public health.”
She said “multiple lessons” needed to be learned “before solutions can be in place in advance of the winter”, adding: “to do otherwise risks avoidable mistakes in subsequent waves of the pandemic which will only harm the public’s health further.”
PHE expertise is ‘irreplaceable’
Prof Richard Tedder, visiting professor in medical virology at Imperial College London, defended PHE as an “assembly of some of the wisest and most committed microbiologists and epidemiologists you could hope for anywhere”.
He criticised what he called the “persistent meddling from on-high”, which he said had “disenfranchised and fractured” staff “to the great detriment of the UK as a whole”.
Prof Tedder warned the plans to merge existing laboratory staff with NHS Test and Trace were “misplaced” and would “further dismantle” the “irreplaceable” expertise that exists within PHE.
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat’s health, wellbeing and social care spokesperson criticised the decision to promote a “Tory insider who’s been responsible for the sub-par Test and Trace system”.
She said in a tweet that “total transparency” was needed when it came to such appointments.
Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders said in a tweet that there had been “no transparency or accountability” in Baroness Harding’s appointment.