Preparing for extreme risks

Lord James Arbuthnot chaired a recent House of Lords’ Special Select Committee on the theme of ‘Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society. Here, he describes the key elements of the report and the main conclusions that spring from them.

In 2019 the UK Government was aware that one of the top risks on its register was a flu pandemic. The advice it had received – and which it duly passed on – was that if there were to be, instead of a flu pandemic, a coronavirus pandemic, it would be likely to cause up to 100 deaths in the UK. Over 140,000 deaths later, the need for a revamped risk assessment and planning process has become clear.

Therefore, the House of Lords set up a Special Select Committee to look at risk assessment and risk planning. It was not a Covid inquiry – there were other committees that did and are doing that – although it naturally drew some lessons and lines of inquiry from the pandemic. The Committee was broadly based and widely experienced in fields including science, business, engineering, finance, technology and defence. We received 99 pieces of written evidence and took oral evidence from 85 witnesses during 29 sessions. Our report, ‘Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society’, was published on 3 December 2021.

Too much secrecy

We found a dangerous level of self-confidence in a risk assessment system which is in many respects deficient. Before the pandemic, the UK’s approach had been internationally commended and was generally viewed as rigorous. Afterwards, not so much.

The central problem is that our current system suffers from excessive secrecy. Some things do have to be kept secret but if by keeping too much too secret the government is hampering those who are meant to be responding to risks, perhaps because they have not been told what the risks are, then we are taking it too far. In many areas the bodies primarily responsible for coping with risks, the devolved administrations and the Local Resilience Forums, felt ill-informed and under-involved. That has to change.

The government does not need to be concerned (as it sometimes is) that if you tell the people the truth they will panic. The large numbers of people volunteering to help the NHS, to take part in medical trials, and to look out for their neighbours during the pandemic, show that the people are the solution rather than the problem. We have a vibrant voluntary sector in the UK ready and willing to step up to the task, if only they could be shown what that task is.

There is another consequence of too much secrecy. The assessment process needs to be open to challenge and scrutiny or it will fall prey to the triple perils of group think, optimistic bias and short-termism.

Some other countries do this well. In Scandinavia there is a whole-of-society approach which the UK would do well to emulate. In Sweden, because of its proximity to a threatening neighbour, there is a focus on general resilience and self-reliance which extends to every single household.

The UK’s current risk process doesn’t work well. It assesses the scale of the damage a hazard might cause, set against assessments of the likelihood of that hazard materialising within the next two years. Both types of assessment are deficient – we have a poor track record at predicting things. Furthermore, the two-year limit means that provision is not sufficiently considered for less likely hazards that will happen sometime – but we don’t know when. This is compounded by the electoral cycle: a politician will not be keen on spending money on something that might not happen before the next election.

The current process produces a list of risks, a list which is of limited usefulness. For a start, the full list is secret, as already discussed, but it also is a list of discrete risks – it doesn’t cope well with the problem of cascading risks. Who would have thought, before Covid hit us, that a pandemic would have such consequences for exam results? Clearly, the Department for Education didn’t because there was nobody to follow through the cascade from one failed system in one department to the next in another.

The risks we face are changing all the time. Technology, on which we are increasingly dependent, brings new benefits but also new threats. Our analysis concluded that risks are increasing as well as changing and that our people need to be ready to deal with hazards that we have never before experienced. For that, we need a change of culture.

Improving the risk process

So, what’s to be done? First, the secrecy needs to be swept away except in those cases (largely those involving malicious activity) where it is essential. That will allow the country to bring in an independent challenge system that can question and hold the government to account. Our proposal is an Office for Preparedness and Resilience, with a Government Chief Risk Officer leading the process, combined with a Parliamentary Select Committee to ask the necessary awkward questions, alongside yearly debates in Parliament about the National Security Risk Assessment. If we marry all of that to a more dynamic, web-based Risk Register, we will be making the entire system more usable and effective.

Second, we must recognise that business and industry – and particularly the insurance sector – have well-honed skills in dealing with risk from which the government can learn lessons. Much of the country’s Critical National Infrastructure is held in the private sector so those conversations need to be regular and substantive. It is not appropriate that so much of the regulation of the private sector is aimed at keeping prices down rather than building resilience up: a balance needs to be struck. Efficiency and low prices, like the system of ‘just in time’, are all very well but they work against resilience.

Third, we need a skills base in emergency planning which rewards the attributes of flexibility, adaptability and diverse thinking (which can be enhanced by diversity of backgrounds). We won’t have foretold everything that is coming but being prepared for one risk is often helpful in relation to another. And some threats, despite our best efforts, will get through so we also need a capacity to recover from whatever befalls us, a capacity which will be strengthened by a generally resilient society.

Fourth, the Committee emphasised the value of training and a wide and continuing programme of exercises. A plan that has not been exercised is likely to fail. Those exercises will need to span the governments (local, devolved, national and international) as well as the voluntary sector and other actors in the scenarios to be played out.

Never waste a crisis

It would be wrong to treat the Covid-19 pandemic as only a disaster, disaster though it has been. It is also an extraordinary opportunity. The country now sees and appreciates the value of resilience and in being better prepared. The people are ready and crying out for improvement, and the government is embarking on a new National Resilience Strategy which comes hard on the heels of the Integrated Review containing one of the overarching objectives, namely ‘building resilience at home and overseas’. This would seem to be the moment to practise the aphorism: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’