In the UK we've heard a lot from both the NHS and from PHE - for example, today's briefings had the medical directors of both the NHS and PHE.

I'm a little confused as to the role of PHE given that the NHS is just that - a national health service. Surely the NHS is responsible for public health?

What do the two separate services do - is it really part of the same organisation and simply split up in name, or do they have well defined, and different, roles?

2 Answers 2


The NHS is the healthcare service of England, and is indeed responsible for public health, as well as providing general healthcare services. Public Health England is an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care which serves to advise the Government on public health matters, as well as being responsible for:

  • making the public healthier and reducing differences between the health of different groups by promoting healthier lifestyles, advising government and supporting action by local government, the NHS and the public
  • protecting the nation from public health hazards
  • preparing for and responding to public health emergencies
  • improving the health of the whole population by sharing our information and expertise, and identifying and preparing for future public health challenges
  • supporting local authorities and the NHS to plan and provide health and social care services such as immunisation and screening programmes, and to develop the public health system and its specialist workforce
  • researching, collecting and analysing data to improve our understanding of public health challenges, and come up with answers to public health problems

The bodies used to both fall under the NHS umbrella, but were split out into separate organisations in the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (explanatory notes).

Generally then, the NHS is ultimately responsible for providing and commissioning public health services in England, but will follow advice given by, and be supported by, Public Health England. PHE is more of a research and advisory organisation, and although it will work with the NHS to provide public health services, it isn't ultimately responsible for their provision.

  • So as a one liner, PHE makes the plans, the NHS gets the unenviable task of implementing them?
    – Tim
    Apr 14, 2020 at 17:34
  • @Tim as far as the relationship can be simplified into one line, yes, that's pretty accurate.
    – CDJB
    Apr 14, 2020 at 17:35
  • You should clarify that NHS is for the UK and PHE is for England. Apr 16, 2020 at 8:44
  • 2
    @ReinstateMonica-M.Schröder that's not the case in this instance - the NHS is for England, and the devolved nations each have their own healthcare services: NHS Scotland, NHS Wales, and Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland.
    – CDJB
    Apr 16, 2020 at 8:46

Public Health England has a particular role in the management of epidemics as is the body that GPs must notify of cases of reportable diseases. On the other hand, if you are ill, you need to see a doctor, not an epidemiologist.

It has also absorbed the old National Radiological Protection Board, and will do things like advise about the hazards of radon or 5G phones.

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