Published On: June 2, 2021

This article for the National Preparedness Commission is by Sam Hilton, Research Affiliate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, and the former head of civil nuclear safety policy at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The article is based on a report Future Proof that was released on 2 June by the Centre for Long-Term Resilience.


What can we learn from Covid-19? This is a question that should be on the lips of ministers and civil servants across Whitehall in the coming months. There are many areas in which to look for an answer, from the vaccine rollout to border closures to Test and Trace. Yet, there is one vital area in particular that receives less attention in this debate than it should, namely the UK Government’s approach to identifying and managing extreme risks.

The National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) and the publicly available National Risk Register (NRR), which is based on the NSRA, provide detailed analysis of the lower-level risks that the UK faces. There is good use of horizon scanning and foresight capacity deployed but extreme risks – the threats that should concern us the most – tend to be excluded from the assessment.

The events of the past year illustrate this well. Before the pandemic hit, the NRR estimated that non-influenza infectious diseases like Covid-19 could lead to ‘up to 100 fatalities’. This was clearly a huge underestimate, and led to government plans that focused too heavily on influenza rather than other diseases. Perhaps even more strikingly, the UK’s pre-Covid pandemic strategy did not include any plans for a lockdown, despite this being a key feature of the government’s response to Covid-19.

There are a number of lessons to learn:

First, extreme risks like Covid-19 need to be central to the UK’s risk identification process. The UK fares quite well compared to other countries when it comes to risk identification for low-level risks. But vital planning tools like the NSRA and the NRR need a proper refresh so that we are much better prepared for the next extreme risk event we face.

Secondly, responsibility for the management of risks needs to be integrated across all levels of government. One way to do this would be to borrow from the ‘Three Lines of Defence’ risk-management process that is standard practice across industry. The ‘first line of defence’ – government departments – already exists. Yet, they need bolstering with additional focus on extreme risks and greater technical expertise.

A new government Chief Risk Officer (CRO) should serve as the ‘second line of defence’. The CRO would provide a much-needed single point of accountability for risks across government, something which is currently sorely missing. The CRO would also assign responsibility for risks to ministers and drive improvements in risk planning, mitigation and preparedness across government. The ‘third line of defence’ would be an independent National Extreme Risks Institute to provide an alternative assessment of the extreme risks we face, and an independent view on relevant departments’ preparedness for them.

Thirdly, and finally, the UK needs to seize the opportunity that now exists to be a global leader on the issue of extreme risks. The UK cannot address transnational challenges alone. However, it can use its position as a diplomatic superpower to lead the journey towards global resilience to extreme risks. As countries begin to form their longer-term policy responses to Covid-19, there may never be a better moment to put extreme risks at the top of the international agenda and go beyond simply dealing with pandemic preparedness.

During its G7 Presidency this year, the UK should make the economic case to its counterparts for improving international extreme risk governance and preparedness. The case is a compelling one – the IMF has calculated the global cost of Covid-19 as $28 trillion. Such a bill certainly justifies the UK to lead calls for international long-term spending commitments to deal with extreme risks, a push for an international agreement on pre-agreed disaster risk finance, and a ‘Crisis Lookout’ function.

While the scale of the tragedy of Covid-19 is alive in our mind, there is a tremendous window of opportunity now for the government to ensure that we learn the right lessons. We owe it to those whose lives have been lost to the pandemic to ensure that we seize this opportunity.

Share this story

Related posts