Published On: November 19, 2020

Today, I chaired the first meeting of the National Preparedness Commission. Its mission to promote better preparedness for a major crisis or incident has never been more timely.

In the last nine months COVID has turned the world upside down. 1.3 million deaths worldwide and 50,000 in the UK alone. One of the shocks has been how many aspects of normal life unravelled so quickly: lockdowns, curfews, business and school closures, grandparents not able to hug their grandchildren, and so on. The economic consequences will last for years.

The frightening bit is that there are nastier, more infectious, viruses than COVID. What is more pandemics are only one of a number of “top tier” risks in our national risk register. The other hazards include catastrophic cyber attacks, solar flares, widespread power failures, floods, and terrorist attacks. Some of the risks are familiar, but many are not – or we have never experienced them in their worst forms.

As a nation we prepared for pandemic flu, but COVID was not flu and a different response was needed. The NHS needed far more surgical gowns instead of the plastic aprons stockpiled for flu. The UK was not alone in being wrong-footed by COVID – very few nations got it right.

Now hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it never helps anyone. The reality is that we have to be ready for the unexpected. And it’s not just the “Black Swans” (previously unobserved, high impact, hard to predict events). It’s also the “Black Jellyfishes” (things we think we know about and understand, but which turn out to be more complex and uncertain, sometimes with a long tail and a nasty sting at the end) and the “Black Elephants” (challenges visible to everyone, but which no one wants to deal with).

Making every organisation more resilient and more strategic in the way it manages risk and the threats we faced means it is easier for a society to address potential global crises – whether it is COVID-19 or a massive cyber attack or climate change – and it is certainly easier to manage the consequences both for ourselves and collectively.

But we’ve got to get beyond the stage of simply admiring the scale of these problems.

Often the responses needed are threat neutral – the steps necessary to prepare an organisation or a nation are the same whatever the hazard.

Some people have differing views about Lord Baden-Powell these days, but his scouting motto “Be Prepared” has never been more relevant in today’s world.

The lesson is resilience needs to be designed into and be part of society’s fabric.

As a nation we must be better prepared to deal with threats and unprecedented shocks. This is particularly important if we are to make sure that the most vulnerable members of our communities are not affected disproportionately.

Robust response plans must be fit for purpose when faced with the real event, societal structures and economic and financial systems must be strengthened. This means not just investing in resilience and preparedness but adopting a cultural shift from a ‘just in time’ philosophy to one of ‘just in case’.

That is why the National Preparedness Commission has been set up. The Commissioners bring a wealth of experience from public life, business, science, engineering, the voluntary sector, critical life-line utilities and finance. The aim is not only to raise awareness and promote debate on how to achieve better resilience, but also to influence Government policy and produce practical guides to help organisations make themselves more prepared, more robust and more fit to face whatever the future may bring.

When – not if – the next disaster hits, we want the whole country to be ready. And not just the Government but every local neighbourhood and every business both large and small – indeed every household and individual as well. That may sound an ambitious target, but that’s what being prepared is all about.

Lord Toby Harris

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