Lifestyle Economics

WHO and PHE put “advocacy” before pandemic preparation, says new research


In the Media

Julian Jessop quoted in The Sun on Sunday


Christopher Snowdon writes for Spiked

new briefing paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs asks: How did these two multi-billion pound public health agencies fail so badly at the moment of greatest need? 

– The World Health Organization and Public Health England officially prioritise infectious diseases. Yet both have spread themselves thinly over a “huge range of medical, political and social issues”;

– Instead of focusing on their primary responsibility of monitoring and tackling infectious and environmental threats to public health, the two agencies have become “state-funded pressure groups” – campaigning on a range of causes and obsessing over fizzy drinks and fast food;

– We may need a world health organisation but we do not need the World Health Organization;

– Having set up the National Institute for Health Protection to replace PHE, the government may be tempted to set up a National Institute for Health Improvement. But this would create unnecessary and costly bureaucracy;

– PHE’s health promotion campaigns should be restored to the NHS. Academic work currently published by PHE, such as evidence reviews, should be outsourced to external authors and commissioned by the Department of Health;

– Member states and private philanthropists should fund a politically neutral pandemic surveillance organisation, focused solely on viral and bacterial epidemics. The US, having withdrawn funding from WHO, could lead the way;

– The runaway train of nanny state regulation, which had looked set to be derailed by a genuine public health crisis, has ended up moving faster than ever.

The World Health Organization and Public Health England’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been littered with failure and incompetence – in large part because both agencies spread themselves thinly over a huge range of medical, political and social issues in the run up to the crisis.

new briefing paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs documents a “catalogue of failure” triggered by a broadening in scope of the “public health” movement from infectious disease control to a focus on lifestyle regulation and various forms of “social justice”.

By dropping the ball on their primary responsibility of monitoring and tackling infectious and environmental threats to public health – the sort of “health protection” that requires government action – the WHO and PHE were left woefully unprepared at the moment of greatest need.

‘You Had One Job,’ authored by the IEA’s Head of Lifestyle Economics Christopher Snowdon, finds that, despite having no particular expertise outside of medicine, the WHO has in recent years transitioned into an “advocacy” organisation. This has manifested itself in a fixation on issues such as gender inequality, poverty reduction and universal healthcare.

And PHE – which will be closed down and replaced by a new agency, the National Institute for Health Protection – is a “state-funded pressure group” which pushed for an “unrealistic and frequently preposterous programme” of food reformulation. The result was catastrophic failure at the moment of greatest need: the outbreak of Covid-19.

In a catalogue of errors, the World Health Organization:

  • Gave the world a false sense of security about COVID-19, praising China’s “commitment to transparency” and claiming the country had set “a new standard for outbreak response”;

  • Prioritised ‘diplomatic niceties’ with China;

  • Opposed travel bans;

  • Opposed face masks; and

  • Sidelined Taiwan and refused to learn lessons for successful containment.

While Public Health England:

  • Failed to expand testing;

  • Failed to expand contact tracing;

  • Discouraged the use of face masks;

  • Failed to share infection data with local authorities; and

  • Miscounted deaths attributed to Covid-19.

With the World Health Organization “compromised politically” and Public Health England set to be replaced, the report recommends diverting public funds to more targeted organisations with a focus on health protection – including from viral and environmental diseases.

The author suggests that private philanthropists and corporate donors play their part in funding new or beefed up organisations and fostering competition between agencies to have “another pair of eyeballs” on emerging threats across the globe.

Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of “You Had One Job”, said:

“Public Health England and the World Health Organisation have failed catastrophically. Both agencies were distracted by their pet projects and dropped the ball on Covid-19. Getting it right next time is a matter of life and death.

“The government is right to close down PHE. Its replacement should be wholly focused on preparing and executing the nation’s response to outbreaks of infectious disease.

“The WHO can no longer be relied on for sound advice or global disease surveillance. If governments and philanthropists cannot reform the agency, they should create a more effective organisation that can do the job properly.”