Public Health England’s chief executive reflects on lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis

Although Public Health England has played an integral role in the global pandemic, it was reported yesterday that it is to be replaced by a new agency with a sole focus on health protection specifically designed to protect the nation from pandemics. It is understoof that this new body – modelled on Germany’s independent agency, Robert Koch Institute – will be announced later this week by health secretary, Matt Hancock. 

In a recent interview for Healthcare IT News, HIMSS chief clinical officer, Dr Charles Alessi, spoke to Duncan Selbie, chief executive, Public Health England, about the nation’s response to the pandemic and the outcomes that have followed. 

“In a time of pressure and adversity during the COVID-19 crises, there have also been some positive outcomes like the implementation of more granular surveillance systems and improvements to the quality of data that we have collected,” said Selbie.

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Talking about a more precise approach and the interface between precision health and the pandemic, Selbie commented: “It is evident that should we have to tackle exacerbations of this pandemic again, with what we know now, we will be far more equipped with information and better prepared in our capacity.

“As a nation, we weren’t as prepared as we might’ve been. We were mostly prepared for a flu pandemic, rather than for novel COVID pandemic. Despite this, people have responded magnificently, and stepped up to the plate delivering all that was asked off them. In my experience of the last 7-8 months, we couldn’t have asked for more in terms of a response from our health service, our local government, our Public Health colleagues, and of course from our citizens all across the country.”

Selbie also discussed the positive effects of the One You campaign launched by Public Health England in 2016, which encourages the nation’s adults to take control of their health by eating a healthier diet, drinking less alcohol, exercising more, and quitting smoking. Despite all the advances made in these areas, he said that there was still plenty to do specifically around better managing inequalities.

Selbie continued: “We looked at data on how long people are living and more importantly how long they’re living in good health. In the UK context, there’s a 20-year difference between the south and the north in regard to living life in good health. That’s not necessarily a just the result of geography, or a rural environment – it’s more to do with income disparities, and these need addressing.”

The importance of sharing knowledge of experiences of the pandemic was also touched on during the interview: “We constantly share knowledge with colleagues from around the world as we are all constantly learning a huge amount from each other. This is the best way to adapt and learn,” concludes Selbie.

The HIMSS & Health 2.0 European Digital Event taking place on 7-11 September 2020, will give attendees the opportunity to share knowledge and learn much more about the pandemic, and how it interfaces with digital transformation.   


In April, the NHS joined forces with US tech giants, Palantir, Microsoft and Amazon, to create the COVID-9 data dashboard.

NHS England and Improvement collated data from across NHS and social care organisation sources, including the NHS 111 call centre, NHS Digital and COVID-19 test result date from Public Health England.


A recent report has shown that online GPs could save employers £1.5 billion in lost working time, particularly since the potential of remote health services has become more apparent during the crisis.

Meanwhile, Healthcare IT News spoke to Ifan Evans, director of technology, digital transformation, Welsh Government Health and Social services, on the Welsh digital strategy during the pandemic and the digital health services used in preparation for the potential next wave.

Click here for more information about HIMSS & Health 2.0 European Digital Event taking place on 7-11 September 2020.


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