Senior counter-terror official put in charge of new UK biosecurity centre

Author : Mircea Birca | Friday, May 22, 2020
Posted in category Eurasia
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Tom Hurd, who was at Eton and Oxford with PM, parachuted in to launch new coronavirus unit

A senior Home Office counter-terrorism official who was at Eton and Oxford with Boris Johnson has been parachuted in to take temporary charge of the newly established joint biosecurity centre, responsible for coronavirus threat levels.

Tom Hurd has switched jobs on an acting basis to get the new centre up and running “within days”, officials said, though he remains a candidate to take over as the next director general of MI6 later this year.

The 55-year-old, the son of the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, has no obvious scientific background, having worked as a diplomat at the UN, as a Middle East specialist and latterly in security.

Hurd and the prime minister have been described as friends. He is considered the frontrunner to to take over after Sir Alex Younger retires from MI6, once the biosecurity centre is established.

It emphasises that the centre, while responsible for monitoring the number of coronavirus cases and the disease’s transmission rate, will be closely modelled on the UK’s anti-terrorism national security system.

The unit will be based in the Cabinet Office, alongside the existing security coordination apparatus, and take over responsibility for managing the low profile alert system currently run by Public Health England.

Scientists have raised concerns that the new body represents additional bureaucracy when they say what is required is better investment in local and regional public health to carefully monitor the status of coronavirus.

Speaking at the launch of the Independent Sage report on Tuesday, Prof Allyson Pollock from Newcastle University said she believed the security emphasis was misguided. “Even the term biosecurity is really worrying,” she said. “We should be thinking about surveillance for epidemics and disease control.”

She said the number of public health laboratories had been cut from 50 to eight over the past 30 years as part of £500m worth of cuts made to Public Health England’s budget.

Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College London, said “it does seem worrying that another structure will be set up” outside the NHS and Public Health England, traditionally responsible for disease control.

The biosecurity centre was announced by Johnson on Sunday night and will administer a five-tier coronavirus alert system, to advise Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they sign up. The UK was currently at level 4 out of 5, the prime minister said, but was heading downwards to level 3.

A few more details emerged in the coronavirus roadmap document on Monday, which said schools and businesses in some areas could be forced to close if the new centre identified a local hotspot.

In their report, the Independent Sage group of scientists put forward the idea of “a ‘traffic light’ scheme” that was “much like the weather forecast or flood warnings (after the news, for example)”.

It could help tell the public more about infection levels in their area and whether more physical distancing or other specific actions were necessary, they said.

A government spokesperson said: “The joint biosecurity centre (JBC) will be established swiftly over the coming days and we’ll have more detail in due course.”

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