A state of preparedness
This article for the National Preparedness Commission by Aidan Shilson-Thomas, Senior Researcher, and Sebastian Rees, Researcher, at Reform draws on the main tenets of a recent report by Reform titled ‘A state of preparedness: how government can build resilience to civil emergencies’. Access to the full report can be gained here.
The final verdicts of a public inquiry may be years away but it is already clear that government was not as prepared as it needed to be to tackle COVID-19. As a pandemic was one of the top known risks – not just to health, but also to the economy, businesses, employment, public services, and wellbeing – this raises questions around how prepared government is to respond to the many other risks the country faces.
The government should use COVID-19 not just to learn lessons for future pandemics but for tackling risks of all kinds. New research from Reform think tank argues that a step change in resilience building can begin now, with action at several levels.
First, new measures are needed to reduce the risk of groupthink in government risk identification and assessment. It is now clear that pandemic risk assessments and planning should not have focused so narrowly on pandemic influenza. The National Risk Register all the way up to 2019 did not judge emerging infectious diseases to have pandemic potential, despite the experience of Asian countries with SARS (a coronavirus) in 2003.
To prevent groupthink from forming, more challenge needs to be injected into these processes. When government forms Expert Challenge Groups to scrutinise risk assessments, Independent Challenge Groups, convened of experts from outside government by a new, independent body, should run in parallel. The full final assessments – not just the public-facing Register – should be made public where this is possible without compromising national security. Openness will make scrutiny of live assessments possible by a much wider range of people.
However, accurate assessments have not always led to good preparedness during COVID-19. Even where non-health impacts were accurately predicted, departments had not always done the planning, or developed the capabilities, to tackle them. The Treasury had done no prior thinking on economic support, nor had the Department for Education planned for national school closures or exam disruption. This was entirely avoidable – for risks with whole-of-government impacts, planning must not only be the responsibility of a single ‘lead’ department.
This speaks to a need for more ongoing, consistent scrutiny of government’s preparedness. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) should take a more hands-on approach to ensuring the quality of departments’ planning, and there should be a named minister below secretary-of-state level responsible for resilience in each department. This would ensure government holds its focus on preparedness in the face of more immediate priorities.
The Cabinet’s role in promoting resilience must be strengthened by reinstating the National Security Council Threats, Hazards, Resilience, and Contingencies Sub-committee, which was disbanded before COVID-19. A regular assessment of government’s capabilities to manage risks in the National Security Risk Assessment should be produced for the Sub-committee, which should be responsible for producing plans to plug gaps that are identified.
It is government’s job to prepare for risks but it is Parliament’s job to make sure government is doing this work properly. Their scrutiny is vital, and in the run-up to COVID-19 it was missing: the most recent committee report on pandemic influenza pre-COVID-19 was in 2009. In other risk areas, despite some excellent reporting from committees like the Lords Science and Technology Committee, scrutiny has been patchy, irregular, and siloed.
A new, designated Civil Contingencies Select Committee would give Parliament continuous oversight of government’s resilience efforts. In turn, government must give Parliament the requisite access to carry out such vital work – it is unacceptable that Parliament had to wait for the findings of Exercise Cygnus to be leaked to find out what they were. If Parliament had seen these before COVID-19, it might well have asked difficult questions before the pandemic struck.
These changes would create long-term improvements in government’s resilience capabilities. The most immediate task, though, is to identify and act on lessons from COVID-19. This work cannot wait for a public inquiry to conclude and should begin now. The scale, complexity and duration of COVID-19 means that it will be challenging even to identify lessons, let alone take substantial action to address them.
To put the government on the front foot, it should appoint a time-limited, Cabinet-level Minister for Resilience and Recovery. With the Prime Minister’s backing, this Minister would have the authority and access to drive change across government. The CCS should lead an internal lesson-learning exercise, and this new Minister should co-ordinate the government’s action, holding other ministers to account for progress through the National Security Council.
The government will want to learn lessons from COVID-19, and the promise of a National Resilience Strategy is an encouraging sign of its commitment to preparing for future shocks. That said, future risks will not wait for the Government to get its house in order. Government can and must immediately take steps to be better prepared when the next crisis comes.