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Duncan Selbie's Friday message - 14 February 2020

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Dear everyone


This week, we have seen the novel coronavirus outbreak continue to escalate and the World Health Organization has officially named the disease COVID-19. Five further patients in England tested positive for the infection this week, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to nine. Two of these five were healthcare workers, resulting in PHE asking a number of other healthcare colleagues to take precautionary and preventative action and self-isolate. I would like to thank the NHS in Sussex in particular this week for their professionalism in the way they responded to these cases locally.

PHE now has a very extensive and complex contact tracing operation underway with health protection teams around the country diligently talking to people that might have been in close contact with carriers of the virus to assess their risk, provide advice and ultimately prevent further spread. You can read an explanation about our approach to contact tracing in this blog.

On Thursday, the first cohort of people repatriated from China left the Arrowe Park Hospital facility in Wirral, where they have been in supported isolation since returning to the UK. Colleagues from PHE, NHS England, Wirral Council and indeed the surrounding community in the Wirral have done a superb job at supporting people in these difficult circumstances. This sincere message of thanks says it all.

The COVID-19 coronavirus diagnostic test developed by PHE was rolled out from our Colindale laboratory to 12 regional laboratories across the UK. This increase in diagnostic capacity over the coming weeks will significantly boost our testing capabilities and is a crucial step in the Government’s science-led strategy of containment, prevention and mitigation.

As the Secretary of State, Matt Hancock reminded us this week, dealing with this outbreak will be a marathon not a sprint. The current risk to UK resilience is ‘moderate’ and the risk to individuals remains low, and we are working night and day to keep it that way.

HIV in older people

Last month, we published Positive Voices, the largest and most representative national survey of people living with HIV, which was developed by PHE in partnership with University College London and Imperial College London. On Monday, PHE provided the latest statistics from both the Positive Voices and HIV annual reports to support discussions on the Victoria Derbyshire show, focusing on late diagnosis of HIV in older people who often do not perceive themselves to be at risk in the first place. People with late-stage infections are ten times more likely to die in the year following diagnosis compared with those who are diagnosed early and treated immediately. Last year we revealed that new HIV diagnoses are at their lowest level since 2000, however we also know that almost half of those who are diagnosed present at a late stage of infection and therefore, as ever, there is more to do.


On Wednesday, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity published ‘The Health of the Nation’, which the Secretary of State introduced at the launch event at King’s College London. The aim of this report is to help set the UK on a clear path to achieve its goal for everyone to have five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035. PHE provided an evidence note on the key risk factors, from health inequalities to musculoskeletal conditions, summarising the strength of evidence and main interventions which can add healthy years to life.

Women and Girls in Science

On Tuesday, we celebrated International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Second only to the Ministry of Defence, PHE has the largest government scientific workforce, predominantly composed of women and on this day we acknowledged their awesome contribution to improving and protecting the health of our nation, responding to the current Covid-19 epidemic being but one example of this.

To mark the occasion, the UK Science Council invited Vicki Chalker, PHE joint head of the Science and Engineering Profession to discuss her role on a podcast and I encourage you to have a listen. In addition, Professor Sharon Peacock, Director of our National Infection Service, has recognised nine women leaders in science across PHE for their phenomenal contribution and you can read about them here.

Salt reduction

The next stage of engagement with the food industry has begun on new salt reduction targets for everyday foods. Since 2005, the average salt consumption across the population has dropped by 11% which has contributed to preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease, accounting for a quarter of all deaths in the UK.

The Government’s ambition is to reduce average salt consumption by a further 1g to 7g per day and move closer to the national dietary recommendation of eating no more than 6g of salt per day. This will be achieved by a combination of further reformulation action by the food industry, through food procurement decisions by the public and private sectors and by consumers being encouraged to make healthier choices. Read more about the salt reduction programme in our blog.

Behaviour change

And finally, on Thursday, we published a guide for local authorities co-produced across the public health sector, which provides a structured approach to encouraging positive behaviour change based on the Behaviour Change Wheel framework. This is a resource for anyone working in local government whose remit involves behavioural change and should be of practical utility.

Best wishes


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