UK was poorly prepared for Covid-19 pandemic, says Venki Ramakrishnan
Identifying Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic as two issues that defined his tenure as president of the Royal Society, Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan, who left the role after five years on Monday, said the UK was “poorly prepared” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, was the first Indian-origin scientist elected president of the society in 2015. The society is a fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. The new president is statistician Adrian Smith.
Delivering the anniversary day address 2020, Ramakrishnan, 68, dwelt on various issues, focusing on the impact of Brexit on science and the ways in which the UK government dealt with the pandemic.
He said, “It is not surprising that in this rapidly evolving situation, there were missteps and mistakes. Despite a pandemic being the No. 1 item on the national risk register, we were poorly prepared. We did not take the virus seriously enough, early enough.”
“It does not strike me as a coincidence that in January and perhaps even part of February, we were distracted by Brexit and our main focus was on plans for a post-EU Britain. We did not have the PPE needed; we were slow to go into lockdown; we spread infection from our hospitals to our care homes; we did not have the procedures in place to stem infections in hospitals; our understanding of who was being impacted the most was hindered by a failure to gather and understand data – that left some groups more exposed; we had insufficient testing capacity; and we likely went into a second lockdown too late as well, despite scientific advice to the contrary,” he added.
Ramakrishnan, who will return to his research role in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, is a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that is key to decisions on dealing with the pandemic. He also led groups in Royal Society on issues related to Covid-19.
On the impact of Brexit on the UK’s position in science, he said it was vital that London retains highly-skilled scientists working and ensures that talented people from around the world still choose to come and contribute to the country’s globally competitive science. The establishment of the global talent visa has been a significant step, he added.
Recalling that he thought of himself as an “unlikely choice” when he was elected president of the society in 2015, he noted the turn of history that eventually led to an Indian-origin scientist leading it.
“When I was approached, I must confess I thought of myself as an unlikely choice and made that clear. Ironically, the first fellows to come into contact with India were colonisers like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, or colonial administrators like Thomas Macaulay and Richard Temple. They certainly did not regard Indians as their equals in any way, and would frankly have been astonished that one day, someone born in India would go on to become a fellow, let alone a president of the Society.
“I came to Britain relatively late in life, and spent much of the time since in the confines of the LMB in Cambridge working on ribosomes. I had neither the large networks of someone who grew up here, nor indeed any familiarity with the British establishment.”
“So it was particularly broad-minded and generous, and perhaps a bit foolish of you to have entrusted me with this position. I was very touched that you did so, and in turn, I have given it my best in what has been an exceptionally challenging and turbulent five years. Perhaps being a somewhat naïve outsider who tried to see both sides of issues may actually have helped make the case to people of divergent political persuasions,” he added.