30th March 2020
Professor of Biology,
University of St Andrews
From 2012 to 2019, I was a chief scientific adviser — a technocratic expert — in the UK government. When an emergency did happen, such as the release of a nerve agent in the city of Salisbury in 2018, I knew that real people might die if I made mistakes.
I took part in simulated exercises to prepare my country for the practical, economic and social shock waves from rare but devastating events — volcanic eruptions that affect whole hemispheres, meteor strikes, zoonotic epidemics and other calamities. I recall a practice run for an influenza pandemic in which about 200,000 people died. It left me shattered.
We learnt what would help, but did not necessarily implement those lessons. The assessment, in many sectors of government, was that the resulting medicine was so strong that it would be spat out. Nobody likes living under a fortress mentality.
Two messages were clear.