Published On: October 23, 2023

In his role as Professor of Practice at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, NPC Commissioner Ciaran Martin has authored a report with fellow colleagues Dr Hester Kan and Maximillian Fink (edited by Ruth Collier), on what Covid-19 teaches us about preparation for future ‘long emergencies’. The Covid-19 pandemic was a two-year crisis – a ‘long emergency’. It was the most enduring and severe population-level crisis the UK had faced since the Second World War. The report Crisis Preparation in the Age of Long Emergencies: What Covid-19 teaches us is based on the idea that such ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ events – health-related or otherwise – might become the new normal, thanks to climate change and other factors.

Whether a crisis is health-related, war-related, weather-related, cyber-related, or supply-related, ‘long emergencies’ have certain features in common: very widespread impact; changes to normal life; a need for complex, interconnecting interventions; and a prolonged duration over which both the crisis and the crisis response evolve. Governments need to prepare. The report aims to help them do so by learning lessons from Covid-19. Looking primarily at the UK but also at Italy, Germany, Australia and Singapore, it examines how crisis preparations and structures played out over the first half of 2020, and what this tells us about the crisis management functions, overall capabilities, and overall coordination states need for the future.

The UK’s Covid-19 experience

The pandemic tested and stretched not just every aspect of the UK’s crisis-response system, but state capability as a whole. The report argues that UK governmental crisis management systems – configured as they are to deal mainly with shorter crises of with more circumscribed impact – need to be re-examined.

‘Long emergencies’ require a system that can tap into its planning and expertise and innovate and improvise, through flexible response networks backed up by sufficient surge capacity, resources and capabilities.

The report looks at three aspects of the crisis management system in the UK:

1) Crisis management structures and capabilities at the centre of government (Chapter 1)

2) The mobilisation of capabilities (Chapter 2)

3) The coordination between different tiers of government (Chapter 3)

The study then looks at the same issues in relation to four international comparators: Italy, Germany, Australia and Singapore (Chapter 4).

Chapter 1: Crisis preparedness and crisis management in the face of Covid-19

Before the pandemic, the UK’s preparation and crisis management capabilities were highly regarded in international terms. Covid-19 tested them to breaking point: the second quarter of 2020 saw a total revamping of the command, control and coordination mechanisms of the state, including the replacement of the mechanism known as COBR by more bespoke, Covid-19-specific arrangements.

Chapter 1 looks in detail at the preparations and how they played out (covering many of the issues that subsequently came up in Module 1 of the official UK Inquiry). It makes four recommendations relating to:

1) Turning risk identification into proper preparation, with an idea for a regular (but infrequent) stocktake of key institutions’ capabilities for funding prioritisation.

2) ‘Baking in’ adaptability to plans and assessing this within simulations.

3) Preparing for a whole-of-government response by replacing the ‘lead department’ approach to crisis preparation with centrally led, genuinely collective ownership of plans, including Treasury input for all scenarios.

4) Improving ability to share data, expertise and evidence (including internationally) and to gather it at speed.

Chapter 2: Mobilising capabilities at speed and scale

A critical part of the story of the Covid-19 response was how governments dealt with the need to source equipment or capabilities at astounding speed and unprecedented scale. This chapter examines six crucial UK examples: PPE, testing, contact-tracing, economic support, school closures, and vaccines. Some key conclusions:

  • The UK’s problems with PPE are one example of confidence about preparedness not surviving contact with reality. The existing set of arrangements for sourcing PPE was set aside, and a hastily arranged and hugely expensive procurement effort was set up in parallel. This effort was hampered by the absence of commercial skills and contacts.
  • Testing is a more nuanced picture. By the end of the pandemic, the UK was one of the easiest and cheapest places in the world to get a Covid-19 But early on, the country squandered its scientific advantage by not being able to produce enough tests. This led to a forced and fateful decision to suspend testing in March 2020.
  • The tracing system struggled continuously throughout the pandemic, and did not achieve the turning point that the testing side did. Plans and capacity were insufficient; new structures were improvised without much success.
  • Economic interventions proved crucial to stabilising the economy. The most important – the furlough scheme – was able to rely on a well-functioning existing apparatus for its administration. This is in marked contrast to the efforts in public health, and is a crucial lesson for the future. However, there are key lessons around integrating economics into emergency planning and key decision-taking processes.
  • There had been no detailed planning for school closures, and the education system struggled to remedy this deficit mid-crisis. The sector additionally showed a disconnect between policy and operational delivery that was also evident in other parts of the UK’s response.
  • Two factors in the first six months of 2020 helped pave the way for the later standout success of the UK’s vaccine. The first is that UK experts were in discussion with the government early, including, crucially, about the requirements for mass production. The second was the focused and breathtakingly quick interaction with the private sector, with highly innovative mechanisms to incentivise scale and UK prioritisation.

Taken together, the core findings from Chapter 2 reinforce some of the key conclusions drawn in Chapter 1: that the breadth and dynamism of crisis planning really matters, because remedying defective preparation in a crisis is almost impossible; and that the crisis capabilities of existing institutions need careful attention, because it is extremely difficult to create new and effective institutions at speed. In addition, the analysis in this chapter gives rise to two further recommendations:

5) To include, in the UK’s crisis management function, emergency procurement and commercial skills, alongside a well-maintained set of private-sector relationships.

6) To train a large number of civil servants from across government in different types of crisis management, so they can be redeployed rapidly in a crisis.

Chapter 3: Coordinating between the central, devolved and local layers of UK government

The third chapter looks at the way in which the UK managed the Covid-19 pandemic between its different tiers of government. It does so in two distinct parts.

First, the relationship between the UK government and local authorities in England. Two recommendations arise from a complex story:

7) There should be a fundamental review of the role of local government in England. It is neither reasonable nor possible to require this tier of government to act as a major contributor to national crises while at the same time denuding it of funds.

8) In the interim, there should be central-government-backed investment in local data-collection facilities and additional crisis-management staff. In the meantime, no additional statutory burdens should be placed on local authorities in respect of national resilience.

Second, the relationship between the UK government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. How devolution played out in a crisis was striking, including as it did:

  • Unprecedented differences between constituent parts of the UK in the free movement of people, including across internal and external borders.
  • A tension between the powers to impose lockdowns (devolved), and the powers to pay for their costs through furlough (central).
  • Devolved nations appearing to have control over borders (a central power) because of their powers over transport (and therefore ability to close airports).

An overarching theme is that how the devolution framework would operate in an extreme crisis had never been the subject of detailed thinking; indeed, the crisis revealed a lack of understanding of devolution in general within Westminster. The report recommends that:

9) Despite the obvious political difficulties, there is a strong case for a fundamental re-examination of how devolution works in a crisis.

Chapter 4: Learning from international comparators: Singapore, Germany, Australia and Italy

The fourth chapter tells the story of the early part of the pandemic in detail for each of Singapore, Germany, Australia and Italy, and synthesises lessons from all five countries.

Some lessons the UK can take from other countries include:

  • Countries’ preparedness for a cross-cutting crisis was not just – or even primarily – about their specific crisis plans. Rather, it was afunction of a state’s overall condition, including its coordination mechanisms, the strength of particular sectors, and overall state capacity.
  • In Singapore, an underlying alert-to-danger mentality, evident not only across government but the entire culture, hugely benefitted the Covid-19 response. Preparedness had been prioritised and the reaction was swift.
  • Those countries with tried-and-tested coordination between central and local government based on trusting working relationships fared better, with Germany being a good example.
  • Australia and Singapore immediately took the Covid-19 threat seriously, and Australia’s government went ‘hard and early’, most notably with extraordinarily tough border controls. By contrast, the European nations and particularly the UK did not want to overreact, slowing effective action.
  • Singapore had a large and wide-ranging set of public officials who were trained and skilled in crisis management, and could be surged into crisis work from other responsibilities without further training.
  • Italy was the first European country to be hit by the virus in a significant way. What the UK and other countries could have learned from it in real time (but did not) illustrates the importance of being able to absorb information rapidly from elsewhere.

This last point in particular underscores a final recommendation for the UK:

10) The UK system should learn from other countries in its crisis preparation; should, by default, include in its models for crisis management the ability to source and absorb qualitative and quantitative data from other countries during a crisis; and should build a network of contacts within other crisis management centres that can be activated during a multinational or global crisis.

Take a deeper dive into the report and its recommendations:

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