The NHS’s main public health body says its planned abolition weeks before the 2012 Olympics could compromise emergency responses if there are serious incidents at the games.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) warns the upheaval generated by huge organisational changes across the health service could pose extreme risks when Britain hosts the world’s biggest sporting event next summer. There is “high potential” for funds aimed at protecting the public at the event to be cut, it says. In the past, the risk to public health at the Olympics has come from incidents as diverse as food poisoning and terrorism.
The agency is responsible for disease control and monitoring as well as scientific and public health advice during emergencies. Its responsibilities are to be absorbed within the Department of Health.
Other authorities which tackle such crises are also in turmoil, with staff leaving primary care trusts well before they are abolished in 2013, while local councils are being hit by spending cuts.
Labour has demanded the shakeup should “at the very least” be put on hold until after the London Olympics.
Diane Abbott, the shadow health minister, said: “David Cameron seems to be prioritising driving through his NHS reorganisation above public safety during the Olympics.
“For this Tory-led government to push our public health services into a state of chaos and abolish the current agency right before London 2012, with people from all over the world arriving in London, and the eyes of the entire world on Britain, is nothing short of a disgrace.”
The revelation of the HPA’s concern over the Tories’ NHS plans comes as public health professionals fear their voice is being ignored, even during the government’s two-month listening exercise. They have no members on the Future Forum group overseeing the exercise, headed by GP Steve Field.
The timetable for the shakeup has already been hit by the break in the progress of legislation – meaning the first changes are now scheduled for July 2012, the month in which the games begin, instead of April.
That shift has led the HPA to say the risk of “compromising” national emergency responses during the Olympics is now even higher than when it first raised the issue in its
official response to the shakeup in March. It warned then that there might be “considerable risks to the national capability to launch multi-agency responses to incidents and emergencies”.
The agency said the planned changes would create “considerable uncertainty” and “preparation for, and response to, incidents arising in association with the Olympic and Paralypmic Games will be compromised” unless an appropriate structure replaced the current one.
In a statement to the Guardian, the agency said: “Deferring the changes to July 2012 would increase the risk. We have made the Department of Health aware of our views concerning the risks in delaying.”
It said a small number of its 3,850 staff had already left, citing concerns about the independence of their work and advice if they were moved to the health department. The HPA’s March document states that the move could also undermine wider public and professional confidence.
Abbott said: “It is time that this government listened to public health professionals. Alarm bells are now ringing within the Health Protection Agency, local authorities and also local primary care trusts, and increasingly there will also be concern amongst the public.
“We have worked hard to bring the Olympic Games to Britain. It should be a time in which we showcase what Britain is about to the rest of the world. The priority should be public safety and ensuring that we are prepared to respond robustly to major incidents and emergencies.”
Lindsey Davies, former national director of pandemic influenza preparedness at the Department of Health who is president of the Faculty of Public Health, said: “The entire public health community has grave concerns about the potential risks from the timing of the changes.”
Although there have been few major health scares linked to past Olympics, there was a terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics and a bombing which killed two people in Atlanta in 1996. A stomach bug struck competitors at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year.
The agency says the games will raise the risk of diseases spreading due to the influx of international visitors and from mass gatherings in restricted spaces during the games. Early identification will help reduce the risk of widespread exposure and minimise the impact on visitors as well as local communities.
Other concerns include heatstroke among crowds. About 300,000 people a day are expected to be in the Olympic Park during the height of the games.
The Department of Health said it was working to ensure “business continuity” was maintained during the transition. A team had been established to ensure the the ministry and the NHS is able “to respond to major emergencies continues to be robust and to ensure the requirements of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are met. Work is under way to test how the proposed new systems would function during the 2012 Games. This work will focus and strengthen safety at the 2012 Games”.
It is understood Olympics organisers are aware of the concerns but have not been directly involved in discussions.
Thousands of athletes begin arriving in Britain for training camps in the UK in June 2012. The Olympic village opens in mid-July and the games run from 27 July to 12 August 2012. The Paralympics run from the end of August into September.
A total of 17,000 athletes and officials from about 200 countries will stay in the village on the Olympic Park, in east London. In total, more than 10,500 athletes will compete in 26 sports based in various venues around the capital and beyond.
Sailing will be based in Weymouth and the Olympic football tournament will be played in various grounds around the country.
According to the detailed transport plan released last month, the busiest day of the games – Saturday 4 August – will see 700,000 ticket holders moving around London to watch sessions at 11 venues. In all, 8.8m tickets are available for the Games, with 6.6m on sale to the general public.
About 20,000 broadcast and print journalists will also descend on London.
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