LONDON — The U.K. has set out plans to create a new national health security agency to plan for, prevent and respond to “future external health threats, such as infectious diseases.”
The “UK Health Security Agency” is to lead protection against future health threats and “will ensure the nation can respond quickly and at greater scale to deal with pandemics and future threats,” the government announced Wednesday.
The agency will be led by Dr. Jenny Harries, an official who has become a familiar face to the British public during the coronavirus pandemic as England’s deputy chief medical officer. Harries has frequently participated in televised briefings alongside government officials during the pandemic.
The U.K. reflected on a tough year of coronavirus lockdowns and losses on Tuesday, a year after the first lockdown was imposed on March 23, 2020. Since then, over 4.3 million people have contracted the virus nationwide, with more than 125,000 deaths — making it one of the hardest-hit countries in the world.
One bright spot has been the country’s rapid vaccination rollout, which started in December. To date, over 28.3 million adults in the U.K. have had the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Last Saturday, a record-breaking 844,285 vaccine doses were delivered on one day alone.
Health officials point out there is no room for complacency despite the scheduled easing of further restrictions on public life. More infectious variants of the virus are spreading throughout the world and the U.K.’s continental neighbors on mainland Europe are also now experiencing a third wave of infections.
As elsewhere, there is a consensus among U.K. officials that the country needs to be better prepared to deal with any future pandemics, and what it called “external” health threats.
The U.K.’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he wants “everybody at UKHSA, at all levels, to wake up every day with a zeal to plan for the next pandemic.” Covid-19, he said, had “shown the challenges of protecting the nation’s health are changing at an unprecedented pace, as new types of threats emerge.”
The government said the new body, which will come into force in April, replacing the National Institute for Health Protection, will be “the U.K. leader for health security, providing intellectual, scientific and operational leadership at national and local level, as well as on the global stage.”
The primary focus for the UKHSA in its initial phase will be the continued fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the government said. It will also continue to bring together agencies and expertise that have been deployed during the coronavirus crisis, such as the U.K.’s respected genomic surveillance capabilities, and its contact tracing network.