The government announced in 2020 that it would be creating a Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) to bring together expertise and analysis to inform decisions on tackling COVID-19. It was a new addition to the variety of bodies providing expert advice to government on pandemics.
The JBC ceased to exist in October 2021, with its analytical function being taken over by the new UK Health Security Agency.
Why did the government set up the JBC?
The JBC brought together experts on disease incidence and control (epidemiologists) with other analysts from across government to give ministers, via the Chief Medical Officer, joined up advice on decisions about managing the disease.
What was the role of the JBC?
The centre had two main jobs. The first was as an independent analytical function to provide real-time analysis about infection outbreaks. It worked to identify and respond to outbreaks of COVID-19 as they arose. The centre collected data about the prevalence of the disease and analysed that data to understand infection rates across the country.
Its second job was to advise on how the government should respond to spikes in infections – for example by closing schools or workplaces in local areas where infection levels have risen.
The JBC was based on the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). JTAC analyses intelligence related to terrorism and sets threat levels, which in turn inform ministers’ decisions on protecting the public and operational deployments by the police and other agencies.
What are the alert levels that the JBC used?
The government used a new COVID-19 Alert level to inform decisions and to explain the level of disease risk to the public. There were 5 levels:
- Level 1: COVID-19 is not known to be present in the UK
- Level 2: COVID-19 is present in the UK, but the number of cases and transmission is low
- Level 3: a COVID-19 epidemic is in general circulation
- Level 4: a COVID-19 epidemic is in general circulation; transmission is high or rising exponentially
- Level 5: as level 4 and there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed.
This alert level system was suspended in March 2023, as part of the government’s transition to “living with Covid-19”.
How did the JBC fit with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and other expert groups?
SAGE co-ordinates and presents scientific advice to decision-makers in government. The JBC made specific recommendations on action the government might take to deal with disease outbreaks.
Did the JBC have a remit across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
The UK government set up the JBC to look at evidence and biosecurity threats in England. The UK government has said that it will engage with the devolved administrations to explore how the centre can operate most effectively across the UK.