The risk of a pandemic has ranked as a highest-priority ‘tier-1’ security risk for all of the last decade. The arrival of covid-19 offered the opportunity to use it as a test case to assess the strength of the UK’s systems of national security oversight and governance. Regrettably, this test case exposed profound shortcomings in these systems.
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.
There is a striking absence of leadership of the UK’s biological security as a whole. Neither the National Security Council (NSC) nor the Cabinet Office provided strategic leadership in this area. The NSC sub-committee to which Government departments with responsibilities in this field are supposed to report was not re-established in this Parliament, and the auditing of departmental preparations is weak. There was only one ‘tier-1’ national health crisis exercise in the last decade (‘Exercise Cygnus’ in 2016), and this did not test important areas that were known to be critical (including Detection capabilities).
The lessons of exercises that do take place are not fully shared: the Biological Security Strategy made no mention of Cygnus, despite being published two years later. Frontline organisations—local authorities, emergency responders and Local Resilience Forums—have sometimes lacked the intelligence information and support they need from central government to carry out their role effectively.
Future biological risks to the UK will evolve rapidly, originating within or beyond its borders. These prospects encompass another serious disease outbreak, but also the ‘slow burn’ risk of antimicrobial resistance and the reducing barriers to the (accidental or deliberate) spread of harmful biological substances. For disease risks originating overseas, the Government’s funding for global vaccine distribution is a good start.
More needs to be done at home, however, with stronger leadership and greater accountability to Parliament and the public. To address biosecurity risks, the Government should:
To address the weaknesses in national security management, the Government should: