Narrow commercial perspectives will be the enemy to the UK’s ability to cope with future crises. We’ve built organisations that are razor-sharp in terms of conversion of resources, mapped tightly against a clear business case. But that also means operations are razor-thin. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed everything that’s brittle about making efficiency the priority for both private and public organisations.

Threats from a virus-related pandemic have always been prominent on the UK’s National Risk Register. With this in mind, the Government ran Exercise Cygnus in October 2016 with involvement across departments and emergency services to model and test how the national infrastructure would stand up to just this kind of pandemic; reports suggest it didn’t; there were frightening gaps and limitations in the response. Recommendations were made and yet the past few months have demonstrated exactly how multiple lines of fragility were left unaddressed, and in particular, the immense costs to the nation needed to fill in the gaps when it’s too late. The Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan was limited because the numbers in the business case hadn’t previously made any sense: why invest in preparation for a high cost, low probability event? The response has suffered from the fractured nature of organisations like the NHS, split up for the sake of creating a more commercial market, with so many individual entities having to make their own arrangements, with PPE for example.

The UK has to be made more resilient

The next major threat to national security might be another pandemic, for which we should be more prepared or at least more familiar, but it also might be something like, a solar flare, a super-volcano, an asteroid strike; all of them will present very different sets of challenges. So it’s not just a case of learning from Covid-19 and implementing measures to improve health systems and response.

Becoming genuinely resilient - not just enhanced risk assessments and precautions, but making sure we’re able to prepare for, cope and recover quickly from national crises - means looking at the big picture, all the ways in which a society is connected and interdependent. We must be thinking in terms of a connected resilience. That means not just looking at the plain financial case but keeping in mind the value of all five ‘capitals’:

  1. Natural environment (as the basis of all life).
  2. Human capital (skills and aptitudes).
  3. Social capital (institutions and communities).
  4. Built capital (everything from our cities to manufactured goods).
  5. Financial capital (the means of transfer between the other four).

A specialisation of knowledge has led to a narrowing of thinking, a lost appreciation of how business, the environment, society (nationally and internationally) all need to work together. Decisions on investment into resilience can’t just be made in terms of a basic XY graph that quantifies risk.

As a nation, we have been assured that each of the Government’s actions has been based on medical expertise and scientific evidence. It can only be right to make use of what is scientifically proven - but it has been a case of an approach based on models without reliable inputs. As one example, evidence is showing that younger people with no underlying health conditions are at a very low risk of dying from the virus – emerging evidence even suggesting that healthy individuals under 40 are more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by Covid-19 – and yet the whole school system was shut down. Lockdown has been important in saving lives among vulnerable groups and in protecting the NHS from being overrun, but the extent of the measures has, it could be argued, been out of proportion. Decision-making hasn’t taken into account the full nature of the impacts of lockdown across society, the longer-term costs and fall out from a harsh economic recession, on people’s wellbeing, security and stability, what that might mean for our ability to deal with other looming issues like climate change.

What can we do in terms of delivering connected resilience?

In government, business and organisations generally there needs to be an opening up to wider perspectives. Sharing of knowledge for a broader understanding of interdependence/collaboration across sectors; and that’s where universities can play a useful role as ‘big picture’ hubs, with their communities of expertise across disciplines, business sectors, technologies etc. in a ‘safe-sandpit’ to experiment within.

We also need leadership and decision-making from a dedicated national-level operation, capable of working internationally for global co-ordination. We can’t continue to rely on the armed forces to step in and deal with any extraordinary events, as has so often happened with e.g. flooding, foot and mouth disease, disruption to the supply of petrol etc. This time the UK was just fortunate that its armed forces weren’t being deployed on extensive missions overseas. They need to be focused on their core role. The Home Office remit is too broad to take on the role in its current form - the department needs to be broken up and put back together again around a focus of emergency management. Organisations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Department for Homeland Security in the US have been shown to have their own flaws, but they are at least examples to learn from. The new emergency agency would need a budget reflecting the fundamental value of security, the underpinning to the life of the nation. It would need to be back up by the UK population, in the form of a body of volunteer reserves, a fourth emergency service able to work across communities, brought together and given regular training in medical skills, crowd control, logistics, communications, a group drilled to take their place alongside emergency services and local councils.

Of course there’s no business case for any of this. Again: low probability, high cost. But no nation can afford to keep making decisions about risk and resilience based on these kinds of crude equations.

Dr Simon Harwood, Director of Defence and Security, Cranfield University

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