Biosecurity and national security Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Getting ready – Identifying and preparing for biological risks

1.The Government’s risk assessment processes correctly identified the threat posed by biological risks and classified an influenza pandemic among the highest ‘tier-1’ risks to the UK’s security as early as 2010. With hindsight from the covid-19 pandemic, the fatalities from emerging infectious diseases specifically were substantially under-estimated. The Government did project the significant disruptive impacts of pandemic flu. However, although this should have indicated the widespread disruption that could be caused by other infectious diseases, this connection seems to have failed to have been made. (Paragraph 19)

2.At the start of 2020, the UK had detailed strategies and plans to deal with a significant disease outbreak, but these were mainly focused on pandemic influenza—seen to be the highest-impact disease risk at that time. This was reflected in the dedicated strategy for tackling an influenza pandemic, the recurrent references to influenza in the actions of the 2017 Risk Register, and in the design of the largest biological security testing exercise that occurred over the last decade, ‘Exercise Cygnus’ (see Chapter 5). Nonetheless, in theory, the Government understood the need not to over-focus on a single disease in its preparations. It committed in 2018 to focusing on impacts rather than specific disease characteristics, to enable an effective response to new and emerging risks. It also referred to other contingency plans that it had developed to prepare for infectious diseases beyond influenza. (Paragraph 24)

How prepared core capabilities were in the face of covid-19

3.We recognise the Government’s significant efforts during the covid-19 pandemic to scale up the UK’s detection and containment capabilities—in the form of test, trace and isolate systems. However, that task was made harder by a failure to consider how these critical capabilities might be scaled up ahead of time, including detection checks at the border and pre-assessing the availability and adequacy of national laboratory infrastructure for large-scale testing. It is regrettable that these capabilities were not covered in any large-scale testing exercises since the classification of pandemics as a ‘tier-1’ security risk was made in 2010. (Paragraph 39)

4.The failure to plan for the expansion of the detection and containment capabilities may have been the result of an undue focus on an influenza pandemic, rather than diseases with a longer incubation period. It is also, we believe, because the Government continued to doubt that a novel disease could circulate so widely in the UK, despite the 2017 National Risk Register judging it ‘likely’ that an emerging infectious disease would affect the UK in the next five years, and the 2018 Biological Security Strategy identifying multiple drivers that would have made an outbreak more—not less—likely. (Paragraph 40)

5.Although, ahead of the covid-19 pandemic, the Government assured our predecessor Committee about PPE stockpiles, many frontline workers experienced shortages in the early months of the pandemic. The Government’s focus was on preparing for an influenza pandemic, but perhaps more significantly it did not anticipate the scale of international competition for insufficient supplies in a global pandemic and how UK supply chains were vulnerable as a consequence. (Paragraph 45)

6.The Government should undertake a review of how it strengthens its supply chains for dealing with future emergencies. It should seek to learn the lessons of the current pandemic, which may include more on-shoring of manufacturing capacity in PPE and other equipment, greater advance stockpiling or pre-negotiated competitive supply contracts. It should also clarify where responsibility lies for PPE provision for healthcare delivered by private sector companies. (Paragraph 46)

7.During the covid-19 pandemic, the Government appears to have put into practice aspects of its influenza pandemic communications strategy from 2012. Other parts of that Strategy require fuller implementation, including operating within a “cooperative framework” with the devolved administrations. It is also not evident that the Government has updated its approach to biological security communications on social media since 2012. (Paragraph 59)

8.A clear social media plan needs to be formulated, not only to make use of such channels in a positive way, but also to counter the effects of misinformation and disinformation circulating online. Maintaining public trust in the Government’s overall handling of the pandemic should be an integral part of the Government’s social media strategy. The recently established unit in the Cabinet Office to tackle anti-vaccination misinformation represents a good start. (Paragraph 60)

9.We accept that the novel features of covid-19 would have caused difficulties for any government, and we recognise the hard work and dedication shown by essential workers, civil servants and local responders in responding to the crisis. While the Government has been scaling up critical response capabilities, we are not convinced that the unique nature of covid-19 fully explains the difficulties the Government faced. (Paragraph 61)

10.The job of responding to the covid-19 pandemic has been made harder by insufficient attention being paid to establishing necessary capabilities ahead of time. The Cabinet Office’s Resilience Capabilities Programme is supposed to encourage departments to develop a “broad and generic set of capabilities” that will be “applicable across multiple risk scenarios”. However, some critical capabilities for a tier-1 security risk have either not been considered and/or focused on the needs of a specific risk scenario (an influenza pandemic). The most striking example of this is the UK’s ‘Detection’ capabilities. Despite the Biological Security Strategy emphasising the importance of ‘Detection’ and learning from health emergencies elsewhere, the Government failed seriously to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation and contact-tracing capabilities during a serious disease outbreak on UK territory. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Government simply did not believe a novel disease other than influenza could circulate widely within the UK. To varying extents, the pandemic has also exposed vulnerabilities in the UK’s strategic supply chains for PPE and its social media communications capabilities. (Paragraph 62)

11.The Government should introduce annual reporting to Parliament by a responsible minister—such as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—on the state of national preparedness for top-tier risks in the Risk Register. This should be compiled in consultation with industry experts on supply chains. The report to Parliament should be prepared by a new task force that we recommend below, with responsibility for resilience capabilities and for leading the UK’s biological security efforts (see paragraph 99). The task force should regularly report on:

a)the national stockpile of critical items (including their condition, suitability for use and applicability across a range of risk scenarios) and the domestic manufacturing capacity of strategic supplies;

b)surge capacity within relevant public services;

c)lessons learned and actions taken as a result of drills, table-top exercises and other exercises (which we discuss in Chapter 5);

d)its approach to coordination with the devolved administrations and local government, and the adequacy of arrangements in each Local Resilience Forum area (see Chapter 4);

e)the level of capacity-building and training undertaken by ministers in emergency response and crisis management (see paragraph 94); and

f)any other actions taken to improve preparedness and resilience.

We expect that sensitive security information could be shared with us, and potentially also with other parliamentary committees, in confidence. (Paragraph 63)

Resilience on the ‘frontlines’

12.Organisations at the local level—in particular local authorities, Local Resilience Forums and community organisations—form the ‘frontline’ of planning for, and response to, emergencies. We recognise the work done by the Government to improve consistency and good practice locally, including the 2019 National Resilience Standard. However, LRFs are under significant pressure due to the protracted nature of the covid-19 emergency (rather than the short-term emergencies that LRFs are intended to deal with). During the current pandemic, they have sometimes lacked the necessary intelligence, data and support from central government to carry out their role effectively. (Paragraph 79)

13.Building on the National Resilience Standard, the Government should establish a long-term plan for investment in and support for organisations in local and community resilience, particularly Local Resilience Forums. This plan should focus on:

a)formalising intelligence–and data-sharing arrangements, both between central government and LRFs and between the four nations;

b)incentivising regular local exercises (see paragraph 106) to test the strength of multi-agency relationships and responses, and monitoring the progress and outcomes of these exercises;

c)providing adequate resources over the long term to local authorities for LRF emergency response preparation work and for undertaking exercises, through ring-fenced funding;

d)working with local authorities and other emergency-response bodies, considering how to strengthen career pathways and retention of emergency managers and others in resilience; and

e)exploring the scope for establishing a ‘reservist’ cadre of previously deployed LRF staff, along the lines of military reservists and (now under discussion) ‘NHS reservists’. (Paragraph 80)

14.Health promotion and health protection go hand in hand. Ongoing actions to improve the health of the UK population and to strengthen the national health and social care system will decrease the impact of biological risks that materialise. Safeguarding the UK’s high-quality domestic systems will also enable a more confident and credible role in leading the global health security agenda. (Paragraph 84)

15.As the structures of the new National Institute for Health Protection are finalised in the coming months, following the abolition of Public Health England, the Government must ensure that the creation of the new body does not weaken wider health promotion activities, which themselves further biological security objectives. The Government should undertake exercises which test the NIHP’s role in future potential emergencies as soon as the current pandemic has abated. (Paragraph 85)

Strategy leadership

16.There is a striking absence of strategic leadership of the UK’s biological security work as a whole. Several Government departments have an important role in preparing for biological risks to the UK’s security, but the NSC sub-committee (‘Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies’) to which departments are supposed to report no longer exists. Neither the National Security Council nor the Cabinet Office provides sufficient collective strategic leadership of departments’ work to address biological risks. This governance gap, it seems to us, may also affect other cross-departmental security challenges, beyond the biological sphere. Without stronger direction from the centre of Government, we are concerned that long-term planning activities integral to the UK’s biological security and other cross-departmental challenges may drop off departmental agendas (particularly at times of financial pressure), or remain in departmental silos despite the objectives of the Fusion Doctrine. The failure to re-appoint the relevant NSC sub-committee may also undermine the Resilience Capabilities Programme, for which this sub-committee was previously responsible. (Paragraph 98)

17.The Government should designate a task force within 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. Such a task force should:

a)monitor operational progress on the commitments in the Biological Security Strategy, and act as a ‘critical friend’ to departments. Assessing the information reported annually by the Strategy’s governance board would be the starting point for its work;

b)identify ministers’ training requirements for dealing with all types of emergencies; and

c)have an explicit audit role to check that all relevant departments and agencies actually implement planned emergency response capabilities (or ensure that the National Security Council fulfils that role). (Paragraph 99)

18.The Government should ring-fence funding for Government departments to undertake horizon-scanning and preparedness activities to strengthen their resilience to a range of major disruptive events (including biological emergencies). Such funding should cover a multi-year period to avoid artificial incentives to undertake only smaller (annual) exercises, rather than larger/non-annual exercises. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat and Government Office for Science should continue their advisory role, working proactively with the NSC in monitoring risks. They should also review how their risk horizon-scanning work can best support the creation of SAGEs as particular emergencies materialise. (Paragraph 100)

19.The Government’s programme of biosecurity exercises is inadequate. There has only been one ‘tier 1’ national biosecurity exercise in the last decade (Exercise Cygnus), and because of its size it was decided not to test several important capabilities critical for a pandemic response. Holding more exercises would, between them, allow all capabilities to be covered. We are concerned that the results and lessons of exercises are not fully shared; Exercise Cygnus was not even mentioned in a Biological Security Strategy published only two years later. (Paragraph 115)

20.The Government should plan and undertake a regular programme of exercises to test the UK capabilities for responding to all tier-1 security risks (natural hazards as well as malicious threats), as well as exercises to test simultaneous multi-risk scenarios (paragraphs 102, 126). Within central government, table-top exercises should occur at least once a year and large-scale ‘tier 1’ cross-departmental exercises at least once every three years, involving enough departments to allow for an appropriately wide ‘Fusion Doctrine’ response to be tested. These exercises should aim (a) to strengthen emergency response capabilities applicable to a range of scenarios, without being too closely tailored to the characteristics of highly specific risks, and (b) include local-level exercises in combination with central agencies and departments in order to test local/central interfaces and data-sharing. (Paragraph 116)

21.The Government should also establish a fixed timetable within which the results of such exercises would be published. (Paragraph 117)

22.The challenges the UK has faced in the covid-19 pandemic reflect longer-term gaps in the systems for planning and preparing for biological risks. While the Government has identified top-tier biological risks to the UK’s national security, that assessment does not appear to have had the required practical effects in terms of exercising and mitigation. This raises questions over the impact of the risk identification and ‘tiers’ system of the National Security Risk Assessment in practice. (Paragraph 118)

23.The Government should re-assess how well the risk identification and ‘tiers’ system of the National Security Risk Assessment process are informing the level of preparation, resource allocation and mitigating activities dedicated to individual security risks. (Paragraph 119)

24.To strengthen the implementation of actions to mitigate high-priority biological risks, the Government should also publish an operational action plan for the principal commitments of the Biological Security Strategy which outlines—for each commitment—the timescale, responsible team and department, resource allocation and means for measuring its progress and impact. (Paragraph 120)

Planning for unexpected futures

25.The risks identified in the Biological Security Strategy are rapidly evolving and are not restricted to pandemics alone. New risks are emerging, and the covid-19 pandemic has exposed countries’ vulnerabilities. It will be critical to ensure that the scientific expertise underpinning the National Security Risk Assessment process (paragraph 12) keeps pace with these rapid developments. There is also a need for greater transparency around the level of uncertainty surrounding estimated impacts and planning assumptions. (Paragraph 128)

26.The Government should establish a dedicated national centre for biosecurity, a new cross-government body to serve as a centre of expertise on the full spectrum of interlocked biological risks facing the UK. The Centre should:

a)establish an evidence base for policy decisions in crucial areas, including (but not limited to): disease surveillance mechanisms, especially zoonotic infections; antimicrobial resistance; biosafety standards in the life sciences sector; inter-agency working in support of a ‘One Health’ approach, and educational outreach methods to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

b)contribute directly to the National Security Risk Assessment process and assess the risks and opportunities of new developments, such as emerging life sciences technologies; and

c)operate secondments with, for example, the new National Institute for Health Protection (see paragraph 83), relevant Government departments, veterinary associations, academia and industry. (Paragraph 129)

27.The Government should renew and refresh a Biological Security Strategy periodically (at least every five years) to take into account the lessons of biological emergencies (including covid-19), the results of testing exercises (see paragraph 117) and an ever-changing risk-landscape. It should consider whether further declassified information could be released on the methodologies for assessing the impact and likelihood of natural hazards, to inspire greater public confidence and debate. (Paragraph 130)

28.The Biological Security Strategy correctly recognised that biological risks are not constrained by international borders. The Government has done much to promote global health security. Actions to strengthen healthcare systems abroad have a dual benefit; not just promoting health but also contributing to effective disease control and the UK’s national security. Similarly, multilateral actions on the environmental agenda make biological risks less likely to materialise, as they tackle some of the underlying drivers—such as climate change, deforestation and habitat destruction. (Paragraph 135)

29.The Government should continue to take a leading international role in the global health security and environmental agenda, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the UK’s presidency of the G7 and the climate change conference in Glasgow next year. (Paragraph 136)

30.The Government should also ensure that the planned reduction in ODA funding does not weaken aid programmes which work to strengthen health systems abroad. Such spending is clearly in the UK’s interests, including its biosecurity interests. (Paragraph 137)

Published: 18 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement