The Joint Biosecurity Centre that will advise on the UK’s coronavirus alert level will not be at full operational capability until “later this summer”, the Department for Health and Social Care said as it announced a senior civil servant had been appointed to lead the centre.
DHSC said today that Clare Gardiner, director of national resilience and strategy at the National Cyber Security Centre, has been appointed to lead the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which will advise on the alert level that informs the government’s response to the pandemic.
Gardiner, who has an academic research background in medical statistics and epidemiology, has been seconded to the director general role to "take [the JBC] through to full operating capability", DHSC said.
Gardiner takes over from Tom Hurd, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, who was initally seconded to set up the JBC on an acting basis, but is now back at the Home Office.
DHSC said the DG was “well placed to build on the initial operating capability of the JBC already delivered thanks to the temporary head of the unit, Tom Hurd.
“The JBC is expected to reach full operating capacity later this summer.”
The centre will be a “single authoritative information picture to local, regional and national decision makers to help them respond rapidly to any outbreak”, DHSC said.
It will collect, collate and analyse data, which it will use to advice the chief medical officers on the alert level, from one – indicating coronavirus is no longer present in the UK – to five – meaning there is a risk of health services being overwhelmed.
The government’s roadmap for easing lockdown measures had said any changes “must be warranted by the alert level”.
But the prime minister, Boris Johnson, did not mention the requirement when he announced the easing of some restrictions at the beginning of last week.
The UK’s alert level currently stands at four, meaning coronavirus transmission is transmission “high or rising exponentially”.
Downing Street confirmed last week that chief medical adviser Chris Whitty had blocked a move to bring the level down to three, indicating the virus is in “general circulation”. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab had said over the previous weekend that the UK was “transitioning from level four to level three”, while Johnson had said the level was “moving towards three”
Asked whether the level was to change last week, the PM said: “In terms of setting of the alert level it's ultimately for the chief medical officers, who are informed by the data which has been collected, collated and analysed by the Joint Biosecurity Centre.”
But health secretary Matt Hancock said last week that the JBC “still formally needs to come into existence”.
He told reporters at the daily Downing Street press briefing on coronavirus that the “architecture” needed for the JBC to advise the chief medical officers was in place but that work was still needed to ensure it had access to all the relevant data.
“We’re getting it stood up, making sure that all the information flows come to it so it’s able to analyse them and to make sure that it gets set up correctly. All that work’s being done, being done as we speak,” he said.
Before joining the NSCS in 2018, Gardiner had a range of operational and policy roles across government, including cyber counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington DC.
Her academic and research background is in medical statistics and epidemiology.