‘Who is in charge?’: Leading UK scientist launches scathing attack on government’s coronavirus response

Ashley Cowburn
AFP via Getty Images

One of the UK’s most distinguished scientists has launched a scathing attack on Boris Johnson’s government, claiming the response to the coronavirus pandemic has been “too much on the back foot” during successive crises.

Sir Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute and Nobel Prize winner, said he was “desperate for clear leadership” at all levels and suggested responsibility for dealing with the virus had been similar to a game of “pass the parcel”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the geneticist was also critical of the initial lack of Covid-19 testing, insisting smaller laboratories could have been used across the country to increase capacity and said that hospitals became “potentially unsafe places to be”.

“I’m not quite sure we are getting it right, and I think you're quite right to say that everybody involved - not just the politicians, the scientists and the doctors - we're all making mistakes,” Sir Paul said.

“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, fire-fighting through successive crises.”


Addressing leadership during the crisis, Sir Paul went on: "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? Is it ministers? Is it Public Health England? The National Health Service? The Office for Life Scientists, Sage? I don't know, but more importantly, do they know?"

“It was little like pass the parcel. No clear lines of responsibility. I’m desperate for clear leadership at all levels.”

On demands for a public inquiry, Sir Paul added: “I don’t think we should initiate a formal inquiry now. We should do it later. What we need is more openness, we need to have greater debate in the public domain, we need to recognise when we don’t understand things and communicate that to the public.

“We have lions on the frontline of clinical care, we need lions also in the leadership so that we can actually drive this forward. I wouldn’t investigate them at the moment, I would just demand more of them.”

Responding to his remarks, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the BBC: “I just wouldn’t agree with that. What we’ve 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 that the prime minister is ultimately responsible. We do want to follow the best advice that is out there from both the scientific advisers and our chief medical advisers and the teams there, but ultimately it is the ministers who make decisions.”