Coronavirus: UK government risks 'sleepwalking country into winter of discontent', warns Nobel Prize-winning scientist

'I have a sense there has been too much pass the parcel,' Sir Paul Nurse says

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 21 July 2020 11:45
UK government risks 'sleepwalking country into winter of discontent', warns Nobel Prize-winning scientist

A Nobel Prize winning geneticist has warned the UK government risks sleepwalking into a “winter of discontent” unless clear governance structures are implemented for the remainder of the pandemic.

Professor Sir Paul Nurse, a distinguished scientist and director of the Francis Crick Institute, criticised what he described as a “pass the parcel” approach and said it was unclear who was responsible for various aspects of the coronavirus strategy.

In a session of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, also echoed the warning, telling MPs the summer months of are critical in preparing the country for a new wave of the virus.

Addressing the committee - chaired by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt - Sir Paul, who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, added he had concerns about governance and “high quality communication of decisions” throughout the pandemic.

“It’s not always been clear at least to me and my colleagues as to who is in charge exactly and whose been making decisions,” he said.

Sir Paul continued: “My experience in talking to advisers and also politicians is that I’ve never found it too easy to find out who is responsible for the different parts of the strategy and for that matter the tactics that are being put in place. I have a sense there has been too much pass the parcel.

“I feel that we haven’t had a good governance system in place. One example would be of course – the need to ramp up testing and the decision to invest in large Lighthouse laboratories, which is not completely wrong. But the idea that could be delivered in time to help with the pandemic was clearly a big mistake. But I have no idea who made the decision. Who made the decision we should rely only on big centralised labs and not consider any other options?”

“I think perhaps what we need to think about, do we have clear governance systems in place? Do we have it both at the executive level, do we have at the political level? I think unless we get that straight we may run the risk of sleepwalking into frankly a winter of discontent if we have an issue with second peaks and so on.”

Speaking moments later, Sir Jeremy added that the coronavirus lockdown had had a “enormous difference to the community transmissions” in the UK.

But he warned: “They’ve done nothing to change the fundamentals of the virus – it remains as infectious as at the end of December, it has the same clinical syndrome, it kills the same number of people and as soon as the lockdown is eased, if we don’t have mechanisms to change the fundamentals - diagnostics, treatments and vaccine – this will come back.

“June, July and August are absolutely critical and if we don’t have things in place by the beginning of September when schools restart we will face a very, very difficult winter.”

Sir Jeremy added: “If we don’t use these three months wisely and if we don’t assume there is a second wave coming and if we get complacent because people say it’s not quite as bad as people thought it was, or there’s a lot of mild disease out there, or young people don’t suffer.

“If we have any sense of complacency of this is behind us then we will undoubtedly have a second wave and we could easily be in the same situation again.”

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