'Who is actually in charge?' Science chief attacks PM over Covid-19

‘Who is ACTUALLY in charge?’ Nobel Prize-winning scientist tears into Boris Johnson’s lack of political leadership over coronavirus that has left the UK on the ‘back foot’ and ‘firefighting through successive crises’

  • Sir Paul Nurse said Britain has been left on the ‘back foot’ with a lack of planning
  • Nobel-winner said country had been ‘increasingly playing catch-up’ with virus
  • Said: ‘The question I’m asking myself is: Who is actually in charge of decisions?’
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

A Nobel Prize-winning scientists tore into Boris Johnson’s leadership during the coronavirus crisis today, claiming it was not clear ‘who is actually in charge of the decisions’.

Sir Paul Nurse said Britain has been left on the ‘back foot’ with a lack of clear planning that left it ”firefighting through successive crises’, in a scathing attack on the political establishment.

Sir Paul, the chief executive of the distinguished Francis Crick Institute, said the country had been ‘increasingly playing catch-up’ and scientists and politicians should lay out ‘a much clearer publicly-presented strategy’ to tackle the pandemic.

The geneticist, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001, told the BBC’s Today Programme: ‘I’m not completely convinced that we are actually being quite clear in having good leadership.

‘The question I keep asking myself is: Do we have a proper Government system in here that can combine tentative knowledge, scientific knowledge, with political action?

‘And the question I’m constantly asking myself is: Who is actually in charge of the decisions? Who is developing the strategy and the operation and implementation of that strategy?

Sir Paul Nurse said Britain has been left on the ‘back foot’ with a lack of clear planning that left it ”firefighting through successive crises’, in a scathing attack on the political establishment.

The geneticist, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2001, criticised the PM (pictured last night), telling the BBC’s Today Programme: ‘I’m not completely convinced that we are actually being quite clear in having good leadership’

‘Is it ministers? Is it Public Health England? The National Health Service? The Office for Life Sciences, Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies)? I don’t know, but more importantly, do they know?’

Sir Paul’s intervention came as the Government faces increasing pressure over its handling of the pandemic. It is facing ongoing criticism over the rate of deaths in care homes, a decision to abandon widespread testing early on and the slow roll out of a new testing regime. 

Last night another top scientist claimed thousands of lives could have been saved from Covid-19 if Britain’s lockdown was imposed just one week earlier.

Government scientific adviser Sir Ian Boyd, a member of Number 10’s SAGE panel, admitted ‘it would have made quite a big difference’ if ministers acted sooner to fight the outbreak.

Department of Health figures show 36,042 Brits have died after testing positive for the coronavirus, which began to rapidly spread in the UK in March.

The Government is expected to unveil a new quarantine scheme today that forces anyone entering the UK to isolate for 14 days. 

Asked about the country’s approach to the outbreak on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Paul said: ‘I’m not sure we are quite getting it right.’

Sir Paul added: ‘Everybody involved, not just the politicians, the scientists and the doctors, we’re all making mistakes and we have to try and learn from what mistakes have been made up until now.

‘I get a sense the UK has been rather too much on the back foot, increasingly playing catch-up, firefighting through successive crises.’

He suggested that what was needed was to ‘get a much clearer publicly-presented strategy as to what we’re actually trying to do, and the evidence upon which it is based’.

Sir Paul added: ‘And we’re not getting that in communications. Maybe there’s a strategy there, I don’t see it.’

Detailed statistics show that more than 44,000 people have already died with COVID-19 in the UK, but a study from the University of Southampton suggested that number could have been kept to 11,200 if lockdown was introduced earlier

Asked about the use of quarantine, Sir Paul suggested more evidence was needed about the infectiousness of people with coronavirus and how this was revealed through symptoms.

He said: ‘Because for a long time it’s been clear that people without symptoms can be infected and therefore be infectious to other people and yet in the hospitals and in the care homes we haven’t been testing such people.

‘So we have been allowing people, care workers, to be in the ward, who are potentially infected, infecting patients, infecting themselves, and as a consequence making hospitals potentially unsafe places to be.

‘We have to see a changed strategy there that is reliant upon the real evidence.’

He continued: ‘I don’t see clarity in the public sphere about these sorts of arguments that need to be shown to the public so that they feel actually they are safe when they go to hospital.’

Sir Paul said there was ‘another mistake’ when the testing strategy was put in place.

He said: ‘There were many laboratories around the country, smaller laboratories, that could have got a major, major increase in testing capacity much more quickly than was possible with the big labs.’

Sir Paul said he did not think there should be a formal inquiry into the UK’s response to the outbreak now, but more ‘openness’ was needed, alongside a ‘greater debate in the public domain’.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he ‘wouldn’t agree’ with Sir Paul’s criticism, explaining that the Government has followed ‘the best advice that is out there’

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he ‘wouldn’t agree’ with Sir Paul’s criticism, explaining that the Government has followed ‘the best advice that is out there’.

He said: ‘I think what we have seen through this actually is we as a Government have been very clear with people, very transparent with people.

‘The Prime Minister himself has been very clear – the Prime Minister ultimately is responsible.

‘We do follow the best advice that is out there from both the scientific advisers, our chief medical advisers and the teams there but ultimately it is the ministers who make decisions.

‘And I think that is one of the things we have seen throughout this process, is our working to ensure we get as much information to people as we can to ensure that people understand what we can all do to play our part in keeping the R level down.’

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