Risk management in the UK: What can we learn from COVID-19 and are we prepared for the next disaster?

It is important that governments use COVID-19 as an opportunity to learn in order to be able to protect citizens from future pandemics or other disasters.

This paper assesses how prepared the UK was for a pandemic and suggests ways to ensure it is prepared for future disasters. The shortcomings identified should be seen as opportunities for improvement, rather than criticisms – as no risk assessment or risk plans will look perfect in hindsight. Evidence is drawn from both desk research and interviews with current and former UK civil servants from across government, and comparisons of UK government processes with best practice internationally and in the private sector.

There are areas for improvement with the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA):

  • The NSRA does not sufficiently explore high-uncertainty risks (risks where estimating the likelihood is difficult). This is due to the exclusion of low-probability risks and emerging risks, and too great a
    focus on recent events.
  • The NSRA categorises and compares risks in a potentially misleading manner, with descriptions of risks being based on what is considered reasonable to plan for.
  • The NSRA process could benefit from greater use of external expertise.
  • In the light of COVID-19, it is notable that the NSRA focused too much on influenza rather than other diseases. For example, the most recent National Risk Register claimed that “emerging infectious diseases” (which would include COVID-19) could lead to “up to 100 fatalities”.

There is also scope for improving the UK’s risk planning:

  • There is no set process, body of expertise or oversight mechanism in place to ensure that departmental risk plans are adequate.
  • In the light of COVID-19, it is notable that the UK’s pandemic influenza strategy did not make any plans for a lockdown, despite this being one of the dominant response strategies to COVID-19.

The UK has good risk management processes by international standards, yet the issues with the NSRA are sufficiently serious that major risks to the UK may be going unidentified. We hope the government will recognise the importance and urgency of addressing this.

Some of these issues are symptomatic of broader political and civil service short-termism. We therefore welcome the focus on long-term, expert-led thinking in the government’s civil service reform agenda.

Other issues can be addressed with simple fixes. We hope that the recommendations in this paper will help the government to address them, and we offer our ongoing support.

NPC_CSER Risk management in the UK _ What can we learn from COVID-19 and are we prepared for the next disaster _ FINAL VERSION _ 2