That spectral sound you can hear is the ghost of Margaret Thatcher saying ‘I told you so’.
This image came to me when reading the Sunday Times’s revelation of how a ‘loophole’ had allowed children of 16 and 17 to gamble up to £350 a week in pursuit of National Lottery jackpots on their laptops or smartphones.
The state-licensed lottery monopolist Camelot offers more than 40 ‘instant-win’ online games, promising ‘lots of fun, loads of prizes’ in what the paper described as ‘a parade of bright colours, flashing lights and photos of glamorous 20-somethings celebrating their wins’.
A ‘loophole’ had allowed children of 16 and 17 to gamble up to £350 a week in pursuit of National Lottery jackpots on their laptops or smartphones. That spectral sound you can hear is the ghost of Margaret Thatcher (pictured) saying ‘I told you so’.
Camelot (pictured: its headquarters in Watford), which operates the National Lottery, takes about £50 million a year from 16 and 17-year-olds, two-thirds of this from ‘instant-win’ online games and scratchcards
Other gambling firms are banned from pursuing the under-18s, but Camelot takes about £50 million a year from 16 and 17-year-olds, two-thirds of this from ‘instant-win’ online games and scratchcards.
This is not the wholesome and straightforward once-a-week competition that the National Lottery presented itself as when launched by the then prime minister, John Major, in 1994.
Although Major’s predecessor was known to have the profoundest reservations about his signing of the Maastricht Treaty which inaugurated the common European passport, her opposition to the creation of a national lottery was less remarked upon.
The National Lottery was launched by then-Prime Minister John Major (pictured left) in 1994
But Major’s chancellor, Norman Lamont, told me that when, as a minister in her last administration, he had tried to persuade Thatcher to licence a national lottery, she had thundered at him: ‘So long as I am Prime Minister, there will be no state encouragement of gambling!’
And in his recently published memoir, Nicholas Coleridge, the former UK boss of the Condé Nast magazine empire, recalled the ex-PM Thatcher telling him how she had upbraided a woman she saw buying a lottery ticket: ‘I approached her at once, and urged her not to waste her precious coin. I said ‘Don’t waste it, dear, you should invest that pound instead’.’
Nicholas Coleridge (pictured), the former UK boss of the Condé Nast magazine empire, recalled Margaret Thatcher telling him how she had upbraided a woman she saw buying a lottery ticket
Then, wagging her finger at Coleridge and his companion, she went on: ‘I hope neither of you will ever contemplate buying a lottery ticket. It’s not a game, it’s a racket!’
It was an almost unbearable irony that the movie The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep and whose portrayal of Thatcher in the advanced stages of dementia so upset her family, was financed with £1 million from the National Lottery ‘good causes’ fund (to which is directed a quarter of the Lottery’s income from punters).
Margaret Thatcher had been brought up a Methodist, a church with a particular horror of gambling — though it was the Labour Party with which Methodism had been most associated.
The former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley was alluding to this when, in 2005, he lambasted the Gambling Act of the Blair government, which legalised TV advertising of betting and also the iniquitous fixed odds betting terminals on every high street in the land, on which people could bet up to £100 every 20 seconds.
When Hattersley denounced his party’s decision to turbo-charge the promotion of gambling as ‘shameful, because it betrays what were the best instincts of the Labour Party and exposes thousands of people to exploitation and the misery of debt’, he was accused of ‘gross disloyalty’.
In 2005, former Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley (pictured) lambasted the Gambling Act of the Tony Blair government, which legalised TV advertising of betting
But if anything, he had underestimated the malign consequences, not least for young people, as well as what Margaret Thatcher would have thought of as the ‘feckless poor’.
According to the industry’s own regulator, the Gambling Commission, around half a million children — no fewer than one in six of those aged between 11 and 15 — now gamble. Its 2018 survey showed that one in eight students admitted they had skipped lectures in order to pursue their habit, and that the number of 16-year-olds hooked on gambling had risen by a third in just three years.
There are now around half a million people in the UK defined as having ‘a serious gambling problem’, a figure which would have been unimaginable a generation ago.
While the National Lottery is by no means the most addictive form of gambling, I gained a minuscule insight into its ability to delude its participants on the one occasion on which I bought tickets.
It was the week of its first super-rollover (or whatever they call it) when the prize on offer had reached something like £20 million. In the days between buying the ticket and the declaration of the winner, I became bizarrely certain that I would be that winner, and formed increasingly detailed plans about how I would spend the money.
I’m embarrassed to say that I felt a slight sense that it was ‘wrong’ when I turned out not to be the jackpot winner after all. When I came to my senses, I understood just how potent this delusion is for so many people.
It helps explains why Camelot is hugely profitable, enabling it to pay out an anticipated £5 million to its very successful long-time boss Diane Thompson, after she had left the company (her reward as part of a ‘long-term incentive plan’).
While the National Lottery is by no means the most addictive form of gambling, it has an ability to delude its participants. It helps explain why Camelot is hugely profitable, enabling it to pay out an anticipated £5 million to its very successful long-time boss Diane Thompson (pictured) after she had left the company
In total, Camelot’s directors have taken more than £40 million in pay and benefits since the operator’s latest licence began in 2009. The company’s slogan ‘It could be you’, should be amended to ‘It will be us’, when applied to its own executives.
Of course, the success it has had in attracting 16 and 17-year-olds to take up the habit boosts the profits which justify those salaries and bonuses.
I appreciate the argument that gambling is, for the most part, conducted by adults who should be free to spend their money how they wish, however stupidly.
But the inexorable rise in children becoming addicted to a pursuit which destroys families and is associated with an increasing number of suicides by young men is undoubtedly linked to the National Lottery’s gargantuan presence — and its development of ‘instant games’, whether in the form of scratchcards or online.
Camelot: leave the kids out of it.
Why I tell guests to beware of the adders
Deaths from adder bites are vanishingly rare. But Britain’s only venomous snake still packs a toxic punch.
The Mail reported last week how Lewis Wise, aged three, had been left ‘temporarily paralysed’ and hospitalised after being bitten by one he had accidentally stepped on in a park in Surrey.
His father, Daniel, who happens to be a ‘snake enthusiast’ with a collection of 47 (non-poisonous) pythons and boas, said: ‘I heard a massive scream and realised he’d been bitten.’
Deaths from adder (pictured) bites are vanishingly rare. But Lewis Wise, aged three, had been left ‘temporarily paralysed’ and hospitalised after being bitten by one he had accidentally stepped on in a park in Surrey
I feel fortunate this never happened to any of our children. Our home In East Sussex is a magnet for adders. It is in the sort of open woodland habitat and sandy soil the snake thrives on.
When we moved in, we found the previous owner had left us some anti-venom in the fridge, with a note saying: ‘You’ll need this.’
Once, we were having dinner when we saw an adder slithering across the floor. One of our guests, who’d just driven in from London, could not believe his eyes. We affected nonchalance, of course.
The three-year-old (pictured) was attacked by a venomous adder at Lightwater Country park in Surrey on Sunday. His father, Daniel, happens to be a ‘snake enthusiast’
But neither we, nor our children, have ever been bitten by any of our resident adders. However, we used to have a giant dog, a Leonberger called Zulu, who was once over-curious in his approach. We knew he had been bitten when he emitted a weird bark and shot off to immerse himself in our mill-pond (presumably to cool off the bite).
He then came galumphing back, and, covered in slimy detritus from the muddy pond, proceeded to ruin every carpet in the house as he hurtled from room to room, yelping piteously.
Happily, he recovered from the bite. But still, we warn visitors with dogs to beware of the adders.
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Will LONDON go back into lockdown? Cases have risen 33% in a week
Lockdown fears are brewing in London as cases have risen 33 per cent in one week – faster than the North East, which today was hit by tougher restrictions to control the spread of the virus.
The number of cases per 100,000 has jumped up from 18.8 to around 25 in seven days amid schools re-opening and a drive to get people back into offices and pubs, data suggests. If it crosses over 50, a ‘local lockdown’ could be triggered, documents seen by The Evening Standard reveal.
And the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates 0.2 per cent of London’s population – 178,000 people – are currently carrying the coronavirus, which is second only to the North West. For comparison, the rate in the North East is just 0.16 per cent.
Public Health England figures today revealed Redbridge, a borough in the east of the city, has the highest Covid-19 infection rate at 34.2 and cases have risen in the authority for four weeks in a row. For comparison, the highest in England is 175.2 in Bolton, Greater Manchester.
It is followed by Hounslow (32.5) and Barking and Dagenham (29.3) – boroughs on two opposite sides of the city, suggesting spread is not just limited to one part of the capital. But none of these have yet been listed as an ‘area of concern’ by PHE today as attention diverts to the hotspots in the north and middle of England.
South London has escaped the current spike in cases, with the three boroughs with the lowest infection rates at present being Sutton (9.3), Bromley (11.8) and Bexley (12.1).
Today the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan pleaded with city-dwellers to adhere to social distancing rules because London is ‘two weeks behind’ some regions of the UK where curfews and bans on socialising have come into force.
But No10 has denied claims there are plans for London to follow in the footsteps of the North East, North West and Midlands, where around 12million people have been placed under tough restrictions – including a ban on seeing friends and family outside the same household – to stop the spread of Covid-19.
The ONS said today London and the North West were the areas that appeared to have highest infection rates, based on swabbing of random people in private households – a better indication of where the outbreak is occurring
How regions’ cases per 100,000 compare. London’s is showing an uptick along with the North East and North West. The graphs come from Public Health England’s surveillance report, published today
London’s infection rate of 25 cases per 100,000, calculated by the Evening Standard, is lower than the national average of 33.8 and is nowhere near the staggering infection rate of 175.2 in Bolton.
However testing has been significantly limited across London, which may alter how many cases are detected. It was claimed yesterday that Baroness Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, told a summit on Friday that a fifth of the lab capacity serving London had been diverted to serve the North-West and other hotspots.
Yesterday The Standard tried to arrange walk-in or drive-in slots in each of the 32 boroughs yesterday but every time received the message: ‘No test sites found.’
Today the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan pleaded with city-dwellers to adhere to social distancing rules because London is ‘two weeks behind’ some regions of the UK where curfews and bans on socialising have come into force
It comes as the ONS said today London and the North West were the areas that appeared to have highest infection rates, based on swabbing of random people in private households – a better indication of where the outbreak is occurring.
The virus was least prevalent in the South West and West Midlands – despite Birmingham being under some tighter Covid-19 restrictions in which people are not allowed to mix with others outside their house.
The prevalence of Covid-19 in London is now at 0.2 per cent. It’s been slowly rising in recent weeks, and is four times higher than the 0.05 per cent at the start of August.
There are rumours London is teetering on the brink of lockdown depending on how it copes with rising infections. Cases generally in the UK are rising, up today by more than 4,000.
Yesterday lead Southwark councillor Peter John laid bare the full scale of the crisis in London, telling Times Radio today he was ‘massively worried’ about tough rules being brought in for the capital, too, in the coming weeks.
He said: ‘We are seeing in London at the moment infection rate doubling every fortnight. It is only going in one direction and only going to speed up.’
The Evening Standard claims to have seen the official plan drawn up to co-ordinate London’s response to an increase in cases, dubbed ‘London Epidemic Response Escalation Framework’.
It sets out a programme of intensified measures each time a ‘trigger point’ is crossed – the first expected to be crossed imminently when Public Health England publish its situation report this afternoon.
If the plan is followed exactly, health chiefs would be expected to hold a city-wide reassessment of how the disease is spreading and make preparation for extra testing and measures to slow transmission in the community.
More severe restrictions on the public, including ‘mandatory masks’, ‘restricted religious gatherings’ and ‘restricted social contacts’ are outlined in the document, signed off at a summit held in London last Friday attended by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Baroness Dido Harding, Mayor Sadiq Khan and local authority leaders.
But once the infection rate passes 50 cases per 100,000, the plan says a ‘local lockdown’ should be considered.
10 BOROUGHS WITH THE HIGHEST INFECTION RATE IN LONDON
Based on PHE data between 7 August and 13 September
Barking and Dagenham 29.3
Tower Hamlets 25.5
Hammersmith and Fulham 24.8
10 BOROUGHS WHERE INFECTIONS HAVE INCREASED THE MOST
Based on PHE data between 7 August and 13 September
Waltham Forest 61.54%
It would join huge parts of England’s North East, North West, West Yorkshire and the Midlands which have been forced into more draconian measures by Health Secretary Matt Hancock due to ‘major increases’ in Covid-19 cases.
Depending on where people, they must abide from a broad set of new rules including not to socialise with other people outside of their own households or support bubble or use public transport unless it is essential.
Thousands of restaurants, pubs and bars have been restricted to table service only, while some leisure and entertainment venues including restaurants, pubs and cinemas, have been told to close between 10pm to 5am, effectively putting a ‘curfew’ on people living there.
Mr Khan said lockdown measures in London could be imposed based on the success of other regions.
Speaking to the PA news agency in central London on Friday, he said he is ‘really worried’ about the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the capital, and is looking at ‘all possibilities’ to stop the spread of the virus.
Asked about the possibility of a 10pm curfew on the capital’s bars and restaurants, he said: ‘What we’ve seen in other parts of the country and in the North East in particular is an instruction for bars and restaurants to close at 10pm.
CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK HAS DOUBLED IN ENGLAND
Coronavirus is infecting 6,000 people every day in England, according to official predictions that show the size of the country’s outbreak has doubled in a week.
The Office for National Statistics today estimated that almost 60,000 people are infected with Covid-19 at any given time.
Based on random swab sampling across the country, the ONS’s weekly data is considered to be the most accurate picture of how the outbreak is changing.
Its projections have soared considerably since last week, when they suggested there were a total 39,700 infections along with 3,200 new cases per day. If the ONS’s estimate is accurate it shows that swab-testing is picking up around half of all cases, with an average of 3,354 people now being diagnosed each day.
Estimates from King’s College London’s Covid Symptom Tracker app echo the trend, showing that the number of new cases in the UK is thought to have surged to 7,536 per day from just 1,974 at the start of September and 3,610 last week.
The projections back up warnings coming from across the board, as the number of people getting officially diagnosed with the illness is surging – now more than 3,000 per day – and hospitalisations are on the up as well at a daily average of 154.
Although the Government fears a second wave is coming, case, hospital and death rates are still significantly below where they were during the depths of the crisis and many scientists agree that Britain is unlikely to find itself in the same situation again.
Today’s ONS data comes as part of mass regular testing that has been done over the past six weeks, taking in 208,730 swab test results from the same people each week.
It showed that around 0.11 per cent of them were infected with the virus between September 3 and September 10, up from 0.07 per cent last week.
This equated to a total of 136 actual positive tests, showing around one in every 900 people is infected.
In its report today the ONS said: ‘The estimate shows the number of infections has increased in recent weeks… There is evidence of higher infection rates in the North West and London.’
‘The reason for that is to minimise the amount of hours people spend socialising, which can increase the risk of the virus spreading.
‘We’re looking into all possibilities in London and we’re looking to see which policies across the country are successful.
‘According to the latest evidence I’ve seen, we’re about two weeks behind some parts of the country. That’s why I’m saying to Londoners please follow the advice.’
Mr Khan also hit out at the Government over delays in the coronavirus testing system which have been rumbling on for the past week without much improvement.
Mr Khan said: ‘I’m angry at the incompetence of the Government that has led to Londoners being refused a test.
‘Those that get a test are sent miles and miles away, and those that have done the test aren’t getting their results for days.
‘I’m also angry that those who have given their contacts to the authorities, many of them aren’t contacted, aren’t told to self-isolate, which could lead to the virus spreading.’
However, Mr Khan said he is ‘working with the Government’ and gave ministers his backing over the rule of six restriction on gatherings.
A Number 10 spokesman said: ‘No restrictions are currently planned in London.’
The most recent situation report from Public Health England, published today and based on data in the week to September 13, reveals which boroughs of London are moving into dangerously high levels of infection.
Redbridge is at the top of the table both for the highest infection rate (34.2), up 16.7 per cent from the week prior (29.3).
Following in order are Hounslow (32.5), Barking and Dagenham (29.3), Enfield (27.3), Newham (27), Ealing (26.9), Luton (26.2), Hackney (25.7), Tower Hamlets (25.5), and Hammersmith and Fulham (24.8).
Eleven boroughs of the 32 have seen infections rate either decrease or stay the same, an improvement on the five reported last week.
But some boroughs which had been listed last Friday as seeing cases slow have now drastically jumped to the top of the table.
Camden has seen cases increase by the most amount in seven days, up 80.7 per cent from 11.4 to 20.6, despite being one of the few to appear steady the week before.
Bexley is also among the top ten areas with a spike in cases. Its infection rate has risen 42.35 per cent from to 8.5 to 12.1. However it is still listed as one of the boroughs with the lowest number of cases.
Overall the increases in cases seen this week among the top 10 are not as dramatic as they were the week prior, when several were seeing their cases jump by more than 100 per cent.
No London boroughs were placed on the PHE’s Watchlist – areas it is concerned about, those which it is offering extra support to and those which it is taking lockdown interventions in to help control the virus.
It may come as a surprise considering three London boroughs already have bigger rates of coronavirus cases than parts of the country that were considered an ‘area of concern’.
On this week’s Watchlist, the area with the lowest case rate considered a concern with 27.4 cases per 100,000 people was Stoke-on-Trent.
And 20 boroughs have infection rates higher than 18.3 – the lowest figure recorded for an ‘area of intervention’ (Ribble Valley).
Analysis by PA news agency, which calculates the seven-day infection rate using data up until September 13, suggests 25 boroughs in London have seen improvements in the past week.
The biggest decrease in cases has been seen in Lambeth with a decrease in 13.8 cases per 100,000 followed by Kensington and Chelsea with a decrease of 13.5, according to PA’s calculations.
Increases were most significant in Waltham Forest, up 6.5 per 100,000, followed by Hackney and City of London, up by 4.4 cases per 100,000.
Every Friday the government releases the R number which indicates how many people a person with coronavirus is likely to infect. The latest R number for London, reported today, was 1.1-1.4, meaning every infected person passes the virus on to at least one other person.
Scientists say the R must be kept below 1. Anything above it allows the coronavirus to spread rapidly and reach a point in which it is uncontrollable – as was the case in March and April when a lockdown was the only option to squash the R.
The growth rate in London, which estimates how quickly the number of infections is changing day by day, is between plus 3 per cent and plus 7 per cent, in line with the rest of the UK at 2 per cent to 7 per cent.
It means cases of the coronavirus are definitely growing, as opposed to there being a chance they are declining.
Today the Health Secretary did not rule out a second national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. The ‘great hope’ is that people will heed current advice to help manage a ‘very serious’ situation.
Matt Hancock said a national lockdown was the ‘last line of defence’ as he responded to reports that ministers are considering further national measures, even for just a two-week period, such as imposing a curfew on bars and restaurants
Under a so-called ‘circuit break’, extra restrictions could be imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19 as the winter months approach.
Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast the latest data showed that hospital admissions are now doubling every eight days, amid warnings that deaths will rise in the coming weeks.
He said it was ‘absolutely critical’ that people followed the rule of having no more than six people at a gathering, while those living under local restrictions should ensure they are sticking to advice.
‘Also, if people have tested positive, or if people have been in close contact with somebody who tests positive, that they self-isolate,’ he said.
‘And if we do all these things, then we can avoid having to take serious further measures.’
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Keir Starmer leads demands for Boris Johnson to hold cross-party Cobra meeting on Covid case rise
Keir Starmer and other senior political leaders from across the UK tonight demanded Boris Johnson join them for an emergency Cobra meeting amid fears that the coronavirus pandemic is spiralling out of control.
The Labour leader joined Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford to call for a cross-party conference amid fears of a second peak of cases.
The country is back on Covid red alert today with Nightingale hospitals ordered to be ready to open again within 48 hours – and another swathe of England plunged into lockdown.
Health bosses have revealed the temporary hospital in Birmingham’s NEC arena – officially opened by Prince William via videolink during the darkest days of the outbreak in April – has been placed on standby so it can start treating patients within two to three days.
The dramatic move came as the UK’s daily infections hit a four-month high of 4,322, with figures showing the outbreak has nearly doubled in size in a week and the R number is potentially as high as 1.4.
There are also fears that the UK’s testing system has buckled under pressure caused by the return of pupils to schools and workers to offices.
While Mr Johnson holds daily coronavirus meetings with ministers, experts and senior advisers, a Cobra meeting – to which leaders of devolved administrations and opposition leaders are sometimes invited – has not been held for months.
Sir Keir this afternoon said: ‘There is mounting concern about whether we have got the virus sufficiently under control. This is the time for swift, decisive national action. We cannot afford to be too slow.
‘That’s why I’m asking the Prime Minister to convene a Cobra meeting and to update the country on the measures the Government is taking to keep the virus under control, including to fix testing.
Sir Keir this afternoon said: ‘There is mounting concern about whether we have got the virus sufficiently under control. This is the time for swift, decisive national action’
Mr Johnson visted an Oxford lab today as the country went back on Covid red alert with Nightingale hospitals ordered to be ready to open again within 48 hours and another swathe of England plunged into lockdown
‘The British public want to know what the situation is and what the Government is going to do about it.
‘I want to make clear too that Labour will continue to act in the national interest. We will support whatever measures the Government take to protect the NHS and save lives.’
Amid growing alarm that the situation is sliding out of control, curbs including a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants and a ban on socialising outside of households have been announced across parts of the North West, Midlands and West Yorkshire from Tuesday.
A total of around 13million people are now under under local restrictions. And Health Secretary Matt Hancock has raised the prospect of even more draconian steps, begging the public to ‘come together to tackle this virus’.
Ministers are mulling a two-week nationwide halt that could see much of the hospitality industry shut – although no final decisions have been made as ministers wrangle over the effect on the economy.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is believed to have raised concerns about the consequences of a full lockdown at a meeting yesterday.
One option under consideration is believed to be timing the curbs for the half-term holidays in October, and extending the break to a fortnight. That would minimise the harm to children, many of whom have already seen their education seriously disrupted.
However, it is not clear whether the government can wait that long as cases surge, with new figures confirming they are doubling every eight days. Schools and workplaces could instead stay open instead while the rest of society is subject to restrictions.
The chilling developments came as concerns grow about the shambolic testing system, with demand four times capacity and claims the Government’s seven ‘lighthouse labs’ are in chaos due to shortages of staff and equipment.
A leading scientist warned that ‘testing is dying on its a**e’, adding he was ‘appalled by what I saw’ at the labs.
Nicola Sturgeon has called on the Prime Minister to convene an emergency meeting this weekend
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford called for a ‘regular, reliable rhythm’ of engagement between Boris Johnson and the devolved governments, adding that one meeting per week ‘would be a start’
Ms Sturgeon has called on the Prime Minister to convene an emergency meeting this weekend to discuss what further steps are needed to combat the rising number of coronavirus cases.
The First Minister said she has been in touch with Boris Johnson to see if a Cobra meeting involving the devolved administrations could take place.
It comes as she warned further national restrictions could be needed – telling Scots ‘hard but necessary’ decisions may have to be taken in the next few days.
She said this way she hopes to avoid a second national lockdown.
‘Ideally we we will be able to have a joined-up approach across the UK,’ she said, but added she could not remember the last time she had spoken to Mr Johnson.
Ms Sturgeon said at the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing on Friday: ‘Discussions across the four nations of the UK will, I hope, take place in the coming days.
‘I have this morning asked the Prime Minister to convene a Cobra meeting over this weekend.’
She said most of the discussions between the four governments in the UK recently have involved Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove rather than the Prime Minister.
Ms Sturgeon said these talks could also do with ‘sometimes being bit more meaningful, in terms of us actually discussing what we are going to do as opposed to hearing what the UK Government is going to do’.
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford called for a ‘regular, reliable rhythm’ of engagement between Boris Johnson and the devolved governments, adding that one meeting per week ‘would be a start’.
‘There is a vacancy at the heart of the United Kingdom and it needs urgently to be filled,’ Mr Drakeford said.
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Gene editing: Citizens’ assembly planned on ‘re-engineering’ human species
People in everyday, non-scientific professions like plumbing and baking should be consulted about gene editing, a group of experts say.
Much like how criminal court cases have a jury composed of normal people, global citizens’ assemblies should let laypersons have their say on the controversial technology.
Gene editing is thought to have potential to prevent conditions such as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and some forms of cancer.
But the technology could potentially create unintended and permanent genetic mutations that would be passed down for generations, weakening humankind.
Genetic enhancements could also safeguard important crops like potatoes and corn from disease and end world hunger – or alternately create weird ‘Frankenstein foods’.
Ethical and social implications of powerful gene-altering technology are too important to be left to scientists and politicians, the team of experts argue in their research paper, published in Science.
Calling all plumbers! Implications of gene editing are believed to be so important that they should be examined not just by those in the field, but by the general public too, experts say
The authors come from a broad range of disciplines, including governance, law, bioethics, and genetics.
‘Think of how we trust juries in court cases to reach good judgements,’ said author Professor John Dryzek at the University of Canberra.
‘Deliberation is a particularly good way to harness the wisdom of crowds, as it enables participants to piece together the different bits of information that they hold in constructive and considered fashion.
‘The fact that they are made up of citizens with no history of activism on an issue means they are good at reflecting upon the relative weight of different values and principles.’
Citizens’ assemblies are ideal for probing the complexities of genome editing, according to experts
WHAT IS GENE EDITING?
Genome editing enables scientists to make changes to DNA, leading to changes in physical traits.
Scientists use different technologies to do this.
These technologies act like scissors, cutting the DNA at a specific spot.
Then scientists can remove, add, or replace the DNA where it was cut.
The first genome editing technologies were developed in the late 1900s.
More recently, a new genome editing tool called CRISPR, invented in 2009, has made it easier than ever to edit DNA.
Source: US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)
‘The promise, perils and pitfalls of this emerging technology are so profound that the implications of how and why it is practised should not be left to experts.’
In the paper, researchers say their proposed global assembly should comprise at least 100 people, none of whom would be scientists, policy-makers or activists in the field.
The selection process for the global assembly would have to reflect differences and represent ‘the diversity of cultures and origins’.
It would be about developing ‘moral and political regulation’ on genome editing experiments and to ensure ‘fair access’ to the technologies.
‘It will help global civil society guard against ill use of genome editing for the interest of a few,’ said paper co-author Professor Baogang He at Australia’s Deakin University in Melbourne.
Gene editing alters an organism’s DNA in ways that could be inherited by subsequent generations.
As well as making humans less prone to disease, it could offer a way to alter mosquitoes and wipe out malaria, boost crop resilience and reduce starvation, or produce pigs full of organs that can easily be transplanted into humans.
But unintended side effects could include accidentally mutated disease-carrying insects, sterile crops and brand new treatment-resistant illnesses for humanity to fight against.
Currently, editing the DNA of a human embryo is not allowed in the US, thanks to a 2017 ruling by the international committee of the National Academy of Sciences.
This graphic reveals how, theoretically, an embryo could be ‘edited’ using the powerful tool CRISPR-Cas9 to defend humans against HIV infection
He Jiankui (pictured) shocked the scientific community when he announced in 2018 the birth of twins whose genes he claimed had been altered to confer immunity against HIV. Citizens’ assemblies could safeguard against future incidents
But in 2018, Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui used the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR on a pair of twin girls to give them immunity against HIV.
Last December, he was sentenced to three years in prison by Chinese authorities for ‘illegally carrying out the human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction’.
Gene-altering practices will eventually impact the whole world, according to co-author Professor Anna Middleton from the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire.
‘For technologies such as genome editing it is crucial to understand social impact,’ she said.
‘The whole globe has the potential to be affected by this, so we must seek representation from as many public audiences as possible across the world.’
Several national versions of these assemblies have already been conducted in the US, UK, Australia and China, planned and funded by organisations including the Kettering Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Genome Campus.
However, how countries choose to regulate gene editing technologies matters globally, ‘because the implications of technological developments do not stop at national boundaries’, the experts argue.
WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED ABOUT GENE-EDITED ‘FRANKENSTEIN FOODS’?
‘Frankenstein foods’ are crops or meat that has been produced through genetic engineering.
Plants and farm animals have genes changed or removed to make them more resistant to certain diseases and pests, or to grow unnaturally large.
To make these modifications, viral DNA is used to alter genes, raising health concerns among some groups.
A number of people feel the long-term effects of genetically modified (GM) foods on human health are not yet adequately understood.
According to the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB): ‘The current evidence from safety assessments of GM crops does not suggest any significant risks to people who eat them.’
The foods also present environmental concerns, as GM crops could reduce the variety of plants and animals in the wild, otherwise known as biodiversity.
The transfer of genes between modified and unmodified plants may also lead to unexpected consequences, for example an irreversible or uncontrollable ‘escape’ of genes into neighbouring wild plants by pollen.
The NCB says: ‘We are not persuaded that possible negative results of gene flow in some areas are sufficient to rule out the planting of GM crops elsewhere in developing countries.’
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