The National:

THE UK Government and English Health Secretary Matt Hancock have today revealed plans for abolishing Public Health England; replacing it with the National Institute for Health Protection.

This appears to be a completely misguided response to the UK Government’s calamitous record over Covid-19, the need to be seen to do something and the search for someone to blame that fits with their ideological viewpoint and deflects on their many disastrous decisions. The UK has the second highest number of Covid-19 deaths per head in the develpped world – only exceeded by Belgium; we have seen a huge number of fatalities running to now over 70,000 UK citizens, with at least 25,000 deaths at the beginning of this pandemic the result of the delay in lockdown.

These costly missteps have got worse throughout the crisis. There has been the never appearing, but much talked-up, government app that was eventually shelved; the chasms in "track and trace"; the centralised, top-down model based on Whitehall and outsourcers knowing best, and ignoring data that would have helped save lives. Combine this with side-lining any informed advice at odds with what this Tory Government wants to hear, with scientific advisers and public health experts front of their queue of villains – and we have the making of a lethal cocktail which has contributed to death and despair through increasingly cynical and nepotistic governance.

READ MORE: Public Health England scrapped: Dido Harding to run new agency

There are underlying reasons why the UK has become "the sick man of Europe": a decade of austerity, local government cuts hitting disproportionately poorer areas and authorities, remorseless centralisation, and marginalising public health in England.

Combine this with the right-wing fantasist agenda of Dominic Cummings who had been planning major Whitehall reform pre-COVID and now sees the opportunity as the perfect cover to make a power grab by the political centre. This development is, in the words of right-winger Kate Andrews, about ‘centralising more power and decision-making.’ The question is not - is this current change a one-off, because in the mind of Cummings it is part of a grand plan, but what, if he and Johnson continue to get their way, will be next?

The government has pushed an agenda in England which is unashamedly about advancing corporate capture by outsourcers such as Serco and Deloitte, with the new body under the leadership of Tory peer Dido Harding, former CEO of TalkTalk who, relevant to these discussions, is married to Tory John Penrose, MP for Weston-super-Mare, a minister in the Cameron and May governments.

This nexus of scavenger capitalism has dramatically underperformed in its role providing ‘track and trace’ in England and has been widely found wanting. Yet as is often case in the world of insider dealing capitalism, with its incestuous relationships and dogmatic belief in ‘public bad, private good’, there is no penalty for failure. It is not the case here of ‘too big to fail’, but rather too important and close to the powers that be in Downing Street to be seen to fail and pay the price - even when they have repeatedly failed.

Matt Hancock’s presentation of the case for the new body this morning in the setting of right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange, was a speech which to the uninitiated sounded all sweetness and light, and reasonable. All the correct words were hit at points - the importance of co-operation; the power of the local and location; science, scale and experts, and preparing the system for future shocks such as external challenges.

The reality in the Alice in Wonderland parallel universe of this Tory Government is the exact opposite to what Hancock was saying. This is about command and control, Westminster diktat, the attrition of the local, and the marginalisation of science and experts. On top of this Public Health England, an organisation committed to addressing public health in its social context, is forced into a reorganisation in the middle of a pandemic that cuts the rug out from under it, and blames it for mistakes that originate in Downing Street policy-making.

And for what? So that a group of corporate outriders including Dido Harding can cover up and gaslight the wider failure of a government which has presided over the deaths of thousands. To add insult to injury Harding has been appointed - in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty - with ‘no appointment process, no health qualifications or experience, failed with test and trace, but a Tory peer with 'business experience'.’ Her face, class and background fits: the ultimate criteria for Boris Johnson’s government of mediocre chumocracy.

This is Groundhog Day Britain. We have been here before. In 1980 under the Thatcher Government, when unemployment soared and poverty and inequality rose, a searing report commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Security was published. ‘The Black Report’ mapped the damage done to the fabric of society by government policies in causing widening health inequalities leading to lower life expectancy. This was shelved and the consequences of Tory policies denied.

Tory Governments harmed life chances, quality of life and opportunities for millions of people up and down the UK in the 1980s and are doing so again. Austerity, poverty and government cuts kill. So do health inequalities. And now more than ever we need public health professionals at the heart of decision-making - not unapologetic self-interested corporate capitalists. Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock have shown again and again what motivates them in this crisis and it is not the health and well-being of the people.

Dr Gerry Hassan is Senior Research Fellow in contemporary history at the University of Dundee and can be followed at @gerryhassan and contacted via