The National Preparedness Commission and the Royal Academy of Engineering share a concern to increase the UK’s resilience post-COVID.  This urgent mission was discussed at a joint roundtable on 22 March ahead of the Academy’s upcoming publication Critical Capabilities: strengthening UK resilience. The roundtable brought together insights from the public, private and third sector including leaders in insurance, banking, infrastructure and healthcare industries.

The Academy’s new report examines how various capabilities and the connections between them support greater resilience to emergencies, be that national assets such as the Met Office, a flexible industrial base, R&D capability to develop solutions to new problems, or expert advice to government. Through workshops replaying the UK response to the Fukushima nuclear accident, Eyjafjallajökull volcano ash cloud, Lancaster flooding leading to loss of electricity and the WannaCry ransomware incident affecting the NHS, a picture was built of the nature of these capabilities and how they are deployed together to respond to an emergency. We have brought together these lessons to identify practices of preparedness and make recommendations to help government build whole-society resilience.

Taking a whole system view for resilience

We recognise that every crisis has specific characteristics and uncertainties which cannot be fully anticipated. There is a premium on understanding your system well in advance. to quickly leverage the right capabilities for an effective emergency response. This requires identification and strengthening of the wider capabilities across the public, private and third sector which build greater resilience in the face of crisis; in particular, understanding what capabilities are available, how they interconnect, any gaps, how to build them into the UK’s emergency response, planning and preparedness by embedding a systems approach.

The discussion flourished around taking a whole system view for resilience. Resilience can be mistaken for redundancy – instead, it’s often a rich ecosystem which needs to be nurtured and ready to respond with agility when an emergency occurs. We discussed how it is easy to overlook key capabilities and relationships. Research and innovation have made crucial contributions to managing crises including COVID-19, where contribution to emergency response relies on the health and availability of networks, regulatory systems, skills and expertise.

Making the case for investing in resilience

Another question we discussed was how to best deliver the audit of UK capabilities the Academy’s report recommends. We considered the importance of weaving together bottom-up and top-down approaches to mapping the capabilities, as well as the challenge of maintaining as live a record as possible. The private sector needs to be engaged and the principle of transparency should be embedded in both the method and the results.

Looking at emergencies, there are still challenges to build the joined-up, principled and transparent governance and leadership systems from the local and across the national levels. This raised a number of questions:

  • Does there need to be greater consistency across how regulators value resilience?
  • How can clarity of responsibility and accountability be defined ahead of time?
  • What is the role for government to bring stakeholders together around major issues?
  • Is there a role for investors to put a premium on resilience to create a financial incentive?

These questions provide routes to the crucial incentives needed to invest in resilience across society, from government to industry and business plans.

Resilience is a deterrent and a key part of the UK Government’s Integrated Review and Global Britain agenda, and a resilient UK is a good place to do business. Business and civil society are crucial to whole-society resilience, and have the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.

This rich discussion helped us refine our recommendations for government with input from a broad range of stakeholders. Alongside the National Preparedness Commission, we hope these discussions will continue and build into action strengthening the UK’s resilience.

Author: Paul Taylor FREng, Chair of the Academy’s Critical Capabilities Working Group

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