Michael Gove's Cabinet Office to oversee new Covid-19 alert system

Christopher Hope
Michael Gove's Cabinet Office to oversee new Covid-19 alert system - GETTY IMAGES
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A new Covid-19 alert system is to come under the direct control of the Cabinet Office as part of Boris Johnson's plans to centralise the running of the Government's response to the pandemic.

The shake-up comes as the Prime Minister starts to plan a new speech in coming weeks based around "three pillars of renewal" — technology, infrastructure and education — as the UK exits the coronavirus lockdown.

The Government announced plans last month for a new biosecurity monitoring system and a Joint Biosecurity Centre to work on the independent collection and analysis of data on infection rates across the country.

The centre will be in charge of "setting the new Covid-19 Alert level to communicate the current level of risk clearly to the public", according to government documents, from level one — when there is no Covid-19 in the UK — to level five when there is "a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed".

It had been assumed that the new centre would solely report to Mr Hancock at the Department of Health, however two sources confirmed that it will be a cross-Government operation that will come under the control of Michael Gove's Cabinet Office.

The move is being seen in Whitehall as a further attempt by Mr Johnson to centralise the response to the coronavirus crisis after a torrid few weeks in which his chief adviser Dominic Cummings has been criticised for allegedly breaching lockdown rules and problems with a new test and trace system.

Separately, business leaders and Whitehall departments have been told to pitch ideas to 10 Downing Street by Friday to feed into the drafting process of the major speech by Mr Johnson.

Sources expect Mr Johnson to stress the importance of HS2, the Northern Powerhouse rail scheme and 4G internet in the speech. One idea being considered is a legal right to work from home, which was first floated by the business department last month.

Number 10 confirmed a report in The Telegraph that Mr Johnson has set up two new centrally-run committees covering strategy and operational delivery to direct the response to the pandemic, replacing four ministerial groups and a daily Covid-19 committee meeting.

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The strategy committee will be chaired by Mr Johnson, with permanent places for Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, Matt Hancock, the Health secretary, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Alok Sharma, the Business secretary.

The changes have come  after Mr Johnson appointed Simon Case, a key aide to the Duke of Cambridge, to a top Permanent Secretary role running 10 Downing Street.

There were suggestions on Wednesday that the shake-up has limited the influence of Sir Edward Lister, Mr Johnson's chief strategic adviser in 10 Downing St and his chief of staff when he was London Mayor.

One source said businesses had been told by a senior figure in 10 Downing Street to email Ben Gascoigne, Mr Johnson's political secretary, rather than Sir Edward because he was unlikely to reply.

The source said: "Eddie is MIA [missing in action]. He is technically about but people have been told not to email Ed Lister — there is no point if you want a response. He is not going anywhere but he is not doing very much."  The claim was categorically denied by Number 10.