Published On: December 22, 2020

As a nation we were supposed to be prepared for a pandemic. It has been a Tier One risk in the UK Government’s National Security Risk Assessment for the last decade.  The experience of COVID-19 over the last year has highlighted profound shortcomings in these preparations and the systems underpinning them.

This is the conclusion of Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy in its report “Biosecurity and National Security” that has just been published. (Transparency note: I have been a member of the Committee for most of its life and am currently its senior Lords’ member, although my term of office comes to an end next month.)

The key finding was:

“At the start of 2020, the UK had extensive and well-regarded plans for a significant disease outbreak—mainly focused on a flu pandemic. The Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic built upon its prior preparations, but the pandemic was not only different than expected but also worse than the Government had foreseen, and the UK’s capabilities were being “rapidly scaled up”. The novel features of covid-19—for instance, its high level of infectiousness—would have caused difficulties for any government. However, we are not convinced that the nature of the disease fully explains the difficulties the Government faced.

Rather, the challenges reflect long-present gaps in the planning and preparation for biological risks. The job of responding to the covid-19 pandemic was harder because insufficient attention had been paid to important capabilities ahead of time. Most notably, despite the 2018 Biological Security Strategy’s emphasis on ‘Detection’, the Government failed seriously to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation and contact-tracing capabilities during a serious disease outbreak. It gave little pre-consideration to detection checks at the border or the availability of national laboratory infrastructure for large-scale testing. The Government appears to have doubted that a novel disease could circulate so widely, even though its 2017 Risk Register judged it ‘likely’ that an emerging infectious disease would affect the UK in the next five years. The pandemic also exposed vulnerabilities in the UK’s supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and its ability to tackle false or misleading information online.”

The Committee warns that future biological risks may evolve rapidly, although there is also the “slow burn” of anti-microbial resistance.  This requires a refresh of the Biological Security Strategy and the dissemination of a regularly-updated action plan with clear lines of accountability and responsibility within government.

More generally to address wider weaknesses that the report identified in more general national security management, the Committee recommended that the Government should:

  • introduce annual reporting to Parliament by a responsible minister on the state of national preparedness for top-tier risks in the Risk Register. This should report on: the national stockpile of critical items; surge capacity within public services; actions as a result of exercises; and the level of training ministers have received in emergency response;
  • designate a task force in the Cabinet Office with explicit responsibility for assessing Departmental capabilities and resilience, as well as providing strategic collective leadership of the UK’s biological security efforts;
  • ring-fence multi-year funding for Government departments to support horizon-scanning and stronger preparations for major disruptive events (including biological emergencies);
  • undertake a regular and inclusive programme of exercises to test the UK capabilities for responding to all tier-1 security risks, with a fixed timetable for their results to be published;
  • establish a long-term plan of investment and support for frontline organisations, particularly Local Resilience Forums;
  • undertake a review of how to strengthen supply chains for dealing with future emergencies, to learn the lessons of the current pandemic; and
  • re-assess whether the ‘tiers’ system of the National Security Risk Assessment sufficiently informs preparation for individual security risks.

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