Tom Hurd, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, has been appointed to head up a new unit tasked with assessing the threat level that will inform the UK’s route out of coronavirus lockdown.
Hurd, who joined the OSCT in the Home Office four years ago, will lead the Joint Biosecurity Centre that the prime minister announced yesterday as part of his “road map” out of lockdown.
Setting out the next phase of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak on Sunday night, Boris Johnson said the government was setting up a “Covid alert system” to “chart our progress and to avoid going back to square one”.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre will run the system, which will calculate the “alert level” of England’s coronavirus response based on the reproduction rate of the virus – known as R – and the number of remaining cases, Johnson said.
Documents published yesterday added that the centre would have an “independent analytical function that will provide real time analysis and assessment of infection outbreaks at a community level, to enable rapid intervention before outbreaks grow”.
“The government's new approach to biosecurity will bring together the UK’s world-leading epidemiological expertise and fuse it with the best analytical capability from across Government in an integrated approach,” according to a 60-page document “plan to rebuild” the economy after Covid-19.
It will collect and analyse testing, environmental, workplace and other data to “build a picture” of coronavirus infection rates across the country and at local level and advise the UK’s chief medical officers of changes to the Covid-19 alert level, the document said.
And the centre will also identify specific actions to address local spikes in infections, working with local agencies and advising ministers, businesses and local partners to close schools or workplaces where infection rates have spiked.
“The government will engage with the devolved administrations to explore how the centre can operate most effectively across the UK, as it is established,” the plan said.
“Over time the government will consider whether the JBC should form part of an extended infrastructure to address biosecurity threats to the UK, and whether the Covid-19 alert level system should be expanded to other potential infectious diseases.”
Hurd’s appointment to lead the centre, first reported by the FT, is understood to be a temporary role.
One Whitehall insider told the newspaper the appointment demonstrated how seriously the government was taking the alert system. Hurd has held several security and counter-terrorism posts and was previously a senior diplomat in the Middle East.
“He’s a very, very senior civil servant and it’s significant that someone of his calibre has been brought in,” the unnamed official said.
The 60-page plan published yesterday also provided further details of the next steps to ease coronavirus restrictions in England.
The document reiterated the prime minister’s insistence on Sunday night that “drastic” changes to the restrictions were not imminent. It stressed that self-isolation protocols would remain in place requiring entire households to remain indoors for 14 days if any member of the household displays coronavirus symptoms, and that an “extensive programme of shielding” would remain in place for those most vulnerable to the virus.
The document said people must avoid using public transport where possible, and observe strict social-distancing measures on public transport.
People will also be told to wear face coverings on public transport or in crowded public spaces where social distancing is not possible.
As a first step towards easing lockdown rules, some restrictions on outdoor activity are being lifted. As of tomorrow, people may exercise with one person outside their household, provided they observe social-distancing rules.
The guidance also says people can exercise more than once a day and can drive to outdoor open spaces “irrespective of distance”.
Further restrictions will not be lifted until 1 June at the earliest, the document said. At this point, the government may begin a “phased approach” to reopening primary schools and non-essential retail businesses, it said.
The document indicated that lockdown measures could be reimposed at any time, and that the government may introduce or lift restrictions in specific geographical areas to try and contain localised outbreaks.
“The government also anticipates targeting future restrictions more precisely than at present, where possible, for example relaxing measures in parts of the country that are lower risk, but continuing them in higher risk locations when the data suggests this is warranted,” it said.
In a foreword to the document, Johnson wrote: “I must ask the country to be patient with a continued disruption to our normal way of life, but to be relentless in pursuing our mission to build the systems we need.
“The worst possible outcome would be a return to the virus being out of control – with the cost to human life, and – through the inevitable re-imposition of severe restrictions – the cost to the economy.”