Biosecurity and national security Contents


1.A pandemic has been categorised as a highest priority ‘tier-1’ risk in National Security Risk Assessments since 2010.1 The Government’s National Security Capability Review in 2018 had further identified ‘diseases and natural hazards affecting the UK’ as one of six principal challenges likely to drive national security priorities over the coming decade.2 Recognising a range of biological risks to the UK’s security, the Government published a Biological Security Strategy in 2018, which aimed to coordinate a cross-government approach to biological risks, whether materialising naturally, accidentally or deliberately.3

2.Against that background, our predecessor Committee, recognising the importance of pandemics and other biosecurity risks, launched an inquiry into ‘Biosecurity and human health’ in July 2019. It published written evidence4 and had planned its evidence-taking sessions when the inquiry was curtailed by last December’s general election. When the Committee was re-established in the current Parliament, we decided to continue where that earlier inquiry had left off, but with a different focus, using covid-19, not only as an important test case for the Biological Security Strategy but also for the UK’s system of national security oversight and governance.

Our inquiry

3.The novel coronavirus (covid-19) outbreak is most widely agreed to have started in December 2019.5 The first identified case of someone infected with the virus in the UK was on 31 January 2020.6 The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared covid-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January,7 and a pandemic on 12 March.8 The UK Government introduced the first national ‘lockdown’ on 23 March.

4.Many select committees have conducted covid-related inquiries since the pandemic began, and we have sought to avoid duplication of their work. Instead of addressing the pandemic’s management in detail, our focus has been on how well the national security machinery and planning addressed biosecurity risks before the pandemic struck.

5.The meaning of biological security, and its shortened form ‘biosecurity’, varies.9 In this report, we make use of the Government’s own definition, in which ‘biological security’ covers:

protection of the UK and UK interests from biological risks (particularly significant disease outbreaks) whether these arise naturally, or through the less likely event of an accidental release of hazardous biological material from laboratory facilities, or a deliberate biological attack. These risks could affect humans, animals or plants.10

Within that broad field, our inquiry focused more narrowly on biological risks to human health, while recognising that the health of animals and plants directly relates to the health of humans (see Chapter 6). Put simply, risks are biological in nature if they involve organisms (or materials derived from them) that can threaten human health, for example, viruses, bacteria, fungi and other toxins.11 Finally, our understanding of ‘resilience’ is as follows:

Resilience embeds the control of risks, and readiness for and recovery from emergencies and disruption into everything we do. National resilience involves the effective coordination of capabilities and approaches across tiers of government and the wider public and private sector.12

6.We received 31 written submissions, including some which updated or expanded on earlier submissions to our predecessor Committee’s inquiry in 2019. We took oral evidence from ten witnesses, including representatives of Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, as well as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Paymaster General. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence to our inquiry and to our predecessor Committee’s, and for the guidance of our specialist advisers13 and the director of the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology, Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne.

7.In July, we received a briefing from the Cabinet Office on the National Security Risk Assessment and the system by which it is reviewed and updated, and we took evidence from Lord Sedwill, the then National Security Adviser. These events also contributed to our inquiry.

8.In this Report we examine

1 Specifically, an influenza pandemic.

2 Her Majesty’s Government, National Security Capability Review (March 2018), p 5

3 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018)

4 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, ‘Biosecurity and human health: preparing for emerging infectious diseases and bioweapons inquiry’, HC (2017–19)

5 This is also the date in use by the Government. See Her Majesty’s Government, Coronavirus action plan (3 March 2020), p 4

6 Two coronavirus cases confirmed in UK, BBC News, 31 January 2020

8 WHO, ‘WHO announces COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic’ (12 March 2020)

9 The meaning of biosecurity differs in the human, animal and plant health sectors. See United Nations Office at Geneva, Biosafety and Biosecurity, pp 2–3

10 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 9

11 Biological weapons involve the deliberate and malicious use of these substances.

12 Her Majesty’s Government, National Security Capability Review (March 2018), p 28

13 Specialist advisers declared the following interests. Professor Malcolm Chalmers: Deputy Director-General, Royal United Services Institute. Professor Michael Clarke: visiting professorship at King’s College London (Department of War Studies); honorary professorship at University of Exeter and Associate Director of its Strategy and Security Institute; member of the Advisory Boards for Global Security Forum, Tellus Matrix and FAROS Foundation; distinguished fellow, Royal United Services Institute; fellow, Royal College of Defence Studies; consultancy with SC Strategy Ltd, Gray’s Inn. Paddy McGuinness: Director and Founder of Hudhud Associates Limited; founder of Oxford Digital Healthcare; chair of trustees, St Joseph’s Hospice Hackney; member of the Oxford Board of the Oxford & Cambridge Catholic Education Board; senior advisor, Brunswick Group LLC; strategic partner, C5 Capital; advisory board, Glasswall Solutions; advisory board, KAZUAR Advanced Technologies Ltd; advisory board, Pool Reinsurance. Professor Hew Strachan: Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews; Comité scientifique, Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Défense, IFRI, Paris; consultant for the Global Strategic Partnership (a consortium led by RAND Europe), commissioned by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, MoD; patron, British Pugwash Group; HM Lord Lieutenant, Tweeddale.

14 Chair of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Letter to the Prime Minister, 29 October 2020

Published: 18 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement