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Government spending £9bn on Covid-19 Joint Biosecurity Centre


Centre will have operational role in government response to coronavirus, says chief medic Chris Whitty

The government is investing £9 billion in the Joint Biosecurity Centre due to failures to invest in local health systems over the years, the government’s chief medical officer has said.

Chris Whitty gave the figure during a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee hearing on 17 July as part of its inquiry on the Science of Covid-19.

“The fact that so much resource has rightly had to be put into the JBC is because of this fact that we really have not invested in health protection over the last several years,” Whitty said, answering a question about the UK’s local public health capacity for management of the pandemic during a potential second wave of Covid-19. “I think we should all be honest about that.”

The details of the new centre have been scarce so far, with some critics calling it out for secrecy.

While a national response is “usually the most effective way” to deal with the beginning of a large-scale epidemic, he said there was now a need for a more localised response.

“The more we get down to this later stage, with much lower numbers, [and] very, very different problems in different places, the more local responses are absolutely critical.

“National resources should be there to support the local response. But it should be the local people, the directors of public health, the local authorities, that for most of these small outbreaks—which are very much to do with the particular environment they are produced in—that should be taking the lead with support from national resource.”

Commenting on the function of the JBC, Whitty said it would take an operational role in collaboration with Public Health England.

“What it’s not doing, at least in its current form, is the job that Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] is doing at pulling together science from multiple disciplines for the wider epidemic.”

The government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance added that there was a “very important distinction” between JBC and Sage.

“Sage is an advisory group. It’s not an operational group. It’s not a management group. It’s not formulating policy,” Vallance said. “It’s giving science advice on topics that cross departments and are of major importance during the emergency.”

The JBC, he pointed out, was “much more akin to the function of Public Health England in terms of being able to identify hot spots” and “being able to identify where numbers are going in the wrong direction”.