The Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) provided evidence-based, objective analysis to inform local and national decision-making in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.
On 1 October 2021, the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) became part of the UK Health Security Agency.
The JBC aimed to provide evidence-based, objective analysis, assessment and advice to inform local and national decision-making in response to coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks. This included:
- helping to inform action on testing, contact tracing and local outbreak management in England
- informing an assessment of the risks to UK public health from inbound international travel
- advising on the COVID-19 alert level
The JBC was an integral part of the NHS Test and Trace service within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). Working in partnership with Public Health England (PHE), it was an important element of an evolving and strengthening health protection ecosystem in the UK. In the immediate term, the JBC’s objectives were to break the chains of COVID-19 transmission to protect the public’s health.
The JBC was established in May 2020 to bring additional and complementary analytical capacity to build on that already in place at a local and regional level across the UK.
On 18 August 2020, the government announced that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) would start work immediately, with a single command structure to advance the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It would bring together PHE and NHS Test and Trace, as well as the analytical capability of the JBC under a single leadership team.
This was the first step towards becoming a single organisation, focused on tackling COVID-19 and protecting the nation’s health. As UKHSA, the JBC and PHE came together to establish a single analytical function to ensure high-quality analysis and insight are available to make evidence-based decisions in the response to COVID-19.
1. About the JBC
The JBC brought together data science, assessment and public health expertise to provide analysis and insight on the status of the COVID-19 epidemic in the UK and the drivers and risk factors of transmission. This insight supported decision-makers at a local and national level to take effective action to break the chains of transmission, and in turn, protect the public.
The JBC’s monitoring programmes were designed to understand the rate of COVID-19 infections and how the virus was spreading. They helped to assess the impact of measures taken to contain the virus, to inform current and future actions, and to develop new tests and treatments.
The data and insight generated from these individual studies also helped strengthen our scientific understanding of COVID-19, inform government policy decisions and work across the COVID-19 testing programme.
The JBC worked collaboratively with the devolved administrations as equal partners to help inform public health responses in respective jurisdictions, as although health is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we know that the virus does not respect borders. The JBC provided analysis and assessments to decision-makers and did not take or direct operational decisions on outbreak response in any nation. The Agency Agreement, Agency Agreement extension and the Political Agreement governing this relationship outlines the political agreement and governance arrangements underpinning the JBC’s commitment to a 4-nation approach.
Health ministers from all 4 nations attended the JBC ministerial board, and the devolved administrations were represented on the JBC steering board and the JBC technical board. The terms of reference for each board are below.
The JBC covered monitoring and immunity studies and worked closely with a wide range of partners, including:
- Public Health England (PHE)
- Office for National Statistics (ONS)
- academic institutions such as Imperial College London, who lead the Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT)
- private industry
The JBC worked in partnership with PHE to strengthen knowledge and understanding of the evolving COVID-19 epidemic and provide insight to national and local decision-makers, local health protection teams and others.
External partnerships were crucial for innovation and the JBC was keen to build close partnerships with the academic and scientific community. The JBC complemented the work of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), supporting its scientific consensus with operational capability, including data analysis and epidemiological expertise.
The detailed data reports from the JBC were used to help inform action on testing, contact tracing and local outbreak management in England.
3. How the JBC supported evidence-based decision making
Working with partners, the JBC aimed to provide targeted, timely and actionable information to decision-makers at all levels to:
- provide insights into the factors that affect the spread of COVID-19 and their potential consequences, including focused insight into the sectors and settings that are the most significant drivers of transmission of the virus
- help local and national decision-makers understand:
- how infection rates in local areas are changing relative to the UK-wide picture
- what factors lie behind localised increases in infections rates
- the potential consequences for the local health and care system
- where action might best be prioritised to help contain the spread of the virus
- help inform decisions on where and how to deploy testing capacity, improve the speed and coverage of contact tracing, identify and manage clusters, and improve understanding and awareness of risk for individuals, businesses and public services
- advise the UK’s 4 chief medical officers (CMOs) on the COVID-19 alert level across all 4 nations of the UK
- assess the public health risks arising from inbound international travel to inform decision-makers on international travel and self-isolation exemptions
Data relating to testing, positive cases and contact tracing was shared directly with directors of public health and local authorities in England by NHS Test and Trace, PHE and NHS Digital. UKHSA will continue to develop insight to complement and build on this provision of data to help ensure local and national decision-makers have timely access to the information they need to respond most effectively to outbreaks.
4. How the JBC helped fight the virus locally
Alongside colleagues from across NHS Test and Trace, the JBC worked in partnership with PHE, government departments, local responders and directors of public health across England to identify local outbreaks and agree on interventions. The process for doing this was set out in the COVID-19 contain framework.
As part of this overall effort, the JBC worked with partners across England to monitor the consistency, coherence and resilience of the UK’s response, adapting as we learned more about disease transmission and the most effective interventions, and building links to equivalent organisations overseas to share expertise.
The JBC also played an integral part of the 9 Test and Trace regional support and assurance teams that were established across England to provide support and assistance at a local level.
Through these teams, the JBC supported local areas and local decision-makers across England, as well as national ministers, to ensure a consistent operation of local powers appropriate to the response to COVID-19 in a given area. The JBC aimed to provide insights into the most effective local interventions to bring virus transmission back under control based on the specific characteristics of local outbreaks.
5. How the JBC used data
The JBC aimed to draw upon data, insight and predictive analytics from a range of health and non-health sources, as well as other information feeds and statistical modelling to build a picture of COVID-19 infection rates across the country.
As it continued to evolve and innovate, the JBC aimed to work in close collaboration with research groups across the academic community to help ensure that advanced mathematical and statistical models of the state of the epidemic in the UK could inform policy in an auditable and robust fashion. As well as data and models, the JBC also looked to enhance its assessments with qualitative information such as behavioural and social insights to investigate the drivers of transmission and impact of interventions.
The JBC ensured that appropriate privacy and compliance procedures were followed and that any use of personal data was handled in line with privacy notices and Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs). When access to personal data was required, the JBC ensured robust privacy and ethical standards were upheld.
The JBC aimed to follow a transparent approach to the assessments and analysis it undertook. It sought to ensure peer scrutiny and challenge of its analytical methods and to crowdsource new approaches to incorporate in its work.
6. The COVID-19 alert level
The JBC advised the UK’s CMOs on the COVID-19 alert level across all 4 nations of the UK. Any recommendation to change the alert level was reported to the CMOs, who made the final decision and advised ministers.
The COVID-19 alert level was informed by a range of indicators and a combination of public health data, statistical modelling and studies, and kept under constant review.
7. COVID-19 international travel
The UK government introduced a traffic light system to support the safe return of international travel. Decisions on red, amber and green list countries or territories were taken by ministers informed by risk assessments provided by the JBC, alongside wider public health factors. See the methodology and data that underpins these risk assessments.
8. Governance and leadership
The JBC was established as a new directorate within DHSC on 1 June 2020 and on 1 October 2021 became part of UKHSA.
The JBC was accountable to Parliament through the:
- Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
- Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care
The JBC ministerial board
Function: recognising the need to ensure ministers from all 4 nations can contribute to JBC oversight, the JBC ministerial board ensured the JBC was delivering its objectives as effectively as possible for all 4 nations of the UK.
There were new health ministers for Scotland and Wales following elections in May 2021.
Members were the UK’s 4 health ministers at the time:
- The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP – Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
- Robin Swann – Minister for Health, Northern Ireland Executive
- Humza Yousaf, Member of the Scottish Parliament – Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care
- Eluned Morgan, Member of the Senedd – Minister for Health and Social Services
Meetings and minutes:
- JBC ministerial board: terms of reference
- 19 July 2021: minutes
- 22 March 2021: minutes
- 30 November 2020: minutes
The JBC steering board
Function: to set the organisation’s strategic direction, monitor performance and hold the JBC’s Director General to account.
Members: membership was subject to agreement by the ministerial board, and included senior officials from DHSC and the devolved administrations.
The JBC technical board
Function: to ensure JBC products were of sufficient clinical and scientific rigour, for example agreeing the methodology used to arrive at recommendations on the COVID-19 alert level
- Professor Sir Chris Whitty – Chief Medical Officer for England
- Professor Sir Michael McBride – Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland
- Professor Sir Gregor Smith – Chief Medical Officer for Scotland
- Sir Frank Atherton – Chief Medical Officer for Wales
- JBC Director General
- The 4 Chief Scientific Advisers (Health)
- The Deputy Chief Medical Officers
Meetings and minutes:
- JBC technical board: terms of reference
- 13 May 2021: minutes
- 26 April 2021: minutes
- 12 March 2021: minutes
Data Science Advisory Board (DSAB)
Function: To ensure JBC can work to the highest standards of reliability and reproducibility, and to inform the JBC’s prioritisation for integration of new data science models and techniques.
- Professor Daniela De Angelis, Professor of Statistical Science for Health at the University of Cambridge
- Dr Ewan Birney, Deputy Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)
- Dr Zeynep Engin, Open Infrastructure Strategy Lead and AI for Science and Government Theme Lead for Tools, Practices and Systems, Alan Turing Institute
- Dr Ben Goldacre, Director, DataLab, University of Oxford
- Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Professor, Associate Vice President (International Engagement) and Executive Director (Web Science Institute), University of Southampton
- Professor Alison Heppenstall, Professor of Geocomputational and ESRC-Turing Fellow, University of Leeds
- Dr Johanna Hutchinson, Director of Analytics and Data Science, UK Health Security Agency
- Professor Graham Medley, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- Professor Andrew Morris, Director, Health Data Research UK
- Professor Mark Parsons, EPSRC Director of Research, UK Research and Innovation
- Professor Sylvia Richardson, Emeritus Director of the MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge
- Professor Simon Vosper, UK Meteorological Office
The DSAB met on a monthly basis.
Meetings and minutes:
Since inception, the JBC also sought and received regular guidance regarding work in mathematical modelling, statistical modelling and computer science from experts across the UK, including:
- the MRC Biostatistics Unit
- UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
- the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- the Alan Turing Institute
- Health Data Research UK
- the Royal Society (RAMP and DELVE groups)
- the European Molecular Biology Laboratory
- several leading universities