UKHSA given greater powers and targets global health collaboration

The United Kingdom Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has been given a specific set of targets and priorities for the upcoming year. Lord Bethell, Minister for Innovation, has written an open letter to the Chief Executive of the UKHSA, Jenny Harries, outlining the plans for the next year, specifically for May 2021 to May 2022.  

Dr Jenny Harries, CEO of UKHSA, said: “The country’s new health security agency will learn the scientific insights from COVID-19 and continuously be preparing for future health threats. We will also have a key role in helping the government identify and implement lessons learned from the management of this pandemic, both during the remaining stages and beyond.

“UKHSA will be a global leader, innovating to help stop a wide array of potential health hazards. The agency will contribute to a post-pandemic health system that is built back better, fairer and more resilient, both for the UK and globally.” 

The UKHSA will assume many functions of Public Health England, and the formal transition is hoped to be completed by September 2021. NHS Test and Trace will also contribute to the set-up of many of the UKHSA’s functions.  

The UKHSA was established earlier this year and has a wide range of responsibilities, to ensure the security and protection of health in the UK. 

In the open letter, Lord Bethell sets out the five key themes of the organisation, that will direct their operations:

  • Prevent: anticipate threats to health and help build the nation’s readiness, defences and health security 
  • Detect: use cutting-edge environmental and biological surveillance to proactively detect and monitor infectious diseases and threats to health 
  • Analyse: use science and data analytics to assess and continually monitor threats to health, identifying how to control and mitigate risks 
  • Respond: take rapid, collaborative and effective actions nationally and locally to mitigate threats to health
  • Lead: lead strong and sustainable global, national, regional and local partnerships designed to save lives, protect the nation from public health threats, and reduce inequalities.

Four main priorities for the UKHSA are outlined in the open letter:

  • Continue the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the roll-out of the vaccination programme and supporting the country through the roadmap out of lockdown.
  • Building on the legacy of the pandemic response to put in place a ‘resilient and scalable infrastructure’ that will protect the public from new and existing threats to health.
  • Take action internationally to strengthen global health security, supporting delivery of G7 and COP26 priorities on improving global systems for disease surveillance and pandemic preparedness, as well as making a full contribution to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) global vaccines programme.
  • Bringing together the staff and capabilities of NHS Test and Trace and PHE to establish UKHSA as a ‘dynamic and innovative agency’ that ‘maximises the health security of the country’.

There are over 10 aims for the UKHSA to continue fighting COVID-19, a selection of which are listed below:

  • Continue to work closely with the NHS, both nationally and locally, in the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
  • Supporting and delivering public health guidance and communications tailored to the needs of different populations and areas, including on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
  • Continuing to further develop surveillance and modelling capabilities and research-led, evidence-gathering activities to inform action at national and local level.
  • Developing and delivering the governance framework known as the Local Action Committee (bronze, silver and gold), which enables the review of the latest epidemiological analysis and rapid response measures.
  • Provide symptomatic and asymptomatic testing services at scale.

The UKHSA has a responsibility to act as a prevention body, to protect from the UK from health threats and is expected to:

  • Work with stakeholders to leverage COVID-19 investments in consumer diagnostics and in testing to deliver improved health security, as well as wider benefits for national health.
  • Expand genome sequencing and analysis capacity and capability to establish a pathogen genomics system to detect and provide local, regional and national surveillance of infectious threats, working with devolved administrations towards a UK whole-pathogens genomics strategy.

To improve health security, several priorities have been set out by Lord Bethell, and will include monitoring “emergency health threats (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear)”, plus:  

  • As a Category 1 responder under the Civil Contingencies Act, work with DHSC to provide an ‘effective emergency preparedness, resilience, and response’ to all public health emergencies.
  • Continuing to deliver ongoing domestic health protection activity, including by acting as the ‘focal point on the international health regulations’ for communications with the WHO and the EU on incidents and outbreaks. Also deliver a ‘signed common framework agreement’ on ‘increased co-operation on public health protection and health security’ between the four UK nations.
  • Delivering commitments, including a ‘memorandum of understanding’ for technical and scientific co-operation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
  • Supporting preparations and provide public health guidance to safely host the 2022 Commonwealth Games and other major national public events.
  • Supporting progression of the Science Hub Programme business case to create the future UK infrastructure for public health scientific capabilities and capacity.

The UKHSA will play a key role in global health security, working with other nations and continuing to work with WHO. The criteria the UKHSA is expected to follow to prevent global health emergencies, is listed below.  

  • Play a leading role in international health security initiatives in consultation with DHSC, including UK’s ambitions in the Global Health Security Agenda and Global Health Security Initiative,.
  • Support delivery of G7 and COP26 priorities, particularly on improving global systems for disease surveillance and pandemic preparedness.  
  • Lead the establishment and delivery of the New Variant Assessment Platform.
  • Continue to provide expert input to the WHO on public health issues, make a full contribution to the WHO Immunization Agenda 2030 initiative, and support DHSC in analysing WHO and other international proposals – particularly around health emergencies reform.
  • Deliver on specific Official Development Assistance-funded projects, such as international health regulations strengthening and UK Public Health Rapid Support Team contributions to global health security.
  • Continue to deliver on commitments to meet health security obligations under the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement.

A strong digital element will inform the work of the UKHSA to make it a “dynamic and innovative organisation” and an action plan to improve the digital plan has been set out at the end of the open letter. It mentions:

  • Supporting the ‘smooth transfer of functions, teams, data assets and systems’ into the new organisation, ensuring that adequate IT, people and estates plans are put in place, as well as making sure that the wider health system can continue to have ‘appropriate access’ to data and information. 
  • Supporting DHSC to make the case for post-pandemic resourcing as part of the spending review. 
  • Establishing internal governance mechanisms, including completing establishment of the board and Audit and Risk Committee. 
  • Developing the network of local, national and international relationships needed to promote health security.

The open letter with the recommendations listed in full can be found here.