Covid is a harsh reminder that we must start planning for future risks and emergencies
The more prepared we are for potential risks and emergencies, the less we will have to improvise and the more effective we will be when a future catastrophe does strike.
What jumps into your mind when you think of risk? A board game? Dangerous driving or crossing the road? Insurance policies? I bet that before the early part of last year you would not have thought of the risk of going to restaurants or a family party, but Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for us all. It has shown how adaptive we can be, but it has also served as a reminder that our interconnected world is vulnerable to a variety of risks, which could escalate globally with minimal warning. And though the pandemic is far from over, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start planning for future risks and emergencies.
This is exactly what the House of Lords Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning, which I have the honour of chairing, will be doing over the coming year.
A central question for the Committee is how to ensure that the UK is as resilient as possible to extreme risks and emergencies. The Committee will address this question by making the best use of the knowledge and experience of its members, drawing on their broad technical, political and security expertise.
The UK is at risk from a variety of events which could cause significant human, economic, environmental and infrastructure damage. These include events as diverse as flooding and landslides to terrorist attacks, the failure of critical infrastructure like the national grid, cyberattacks, bioterrorism or extreme space weather. And most of them will create the effect of cascade, so that one risk (for example a health risk) might create another (for example in education). Some of these risks have the potential to change – or even end – life as we know it.
The UK was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a national-level risk assessment and is recognised as a policy leader in this area. It remains one of the few countries in the world with a strong civil contingencies secretariat and disaster prevention and management protocols and procedures.
However, several questions have arisen in relation to our approach. How does the Government balance science and policy? Who owns the risk, and how does that body act across silos? How does it deal with unknown or unpredicted risks? What do we do about risks nobody has ever experienced before but which, because of the advance of (and our dependence on) technology, are now emerging? How do we create incentives to deal with risks before they arise? The work of my Committee will be crucial in addressing these questions.
Let’s not limit our imaginations when it comes to potential catastrophes, because we need to be prepared
The Committee has already heard that the current approach to risk assessment takes insufficient account of low probability, high impact risk. It is important that the government takes these extreme risks seriously. And we need to look at the way money and resources are allocated. If we had spent more on preparation for a pandemic, would we now be spending less on the recovery from it? Is adequate external expertise on risk management being sought? We want to ask whether the National Security Risk Assessment allows us to prepare for the risks this country faces.
One such example of where the UK may need to develop its National Security Risk Assessment further is on the risk evaluation to support the delivery of resilient infrastructure. Failures or disruption for one sector of national infrastructure can cause failures in other sectors, either through knock-on effects or in one single point of dependency. It has been suggested that there is a lack of understanding and coordination for inter-dependencies within national infrastructure and this cascading effect isn’t just limited to infrastructure, but applies to every risk or catastrophe.
Translating this to the general public is a challenge, but the public have an important and essential role to play in both responding to and mitigating risks. We should not underestimate the population; the response to the pandemic has been crucial and very heartening. They are a resource as well as recipients of these risks and we must engage them.
Over the course of the Committee's inquiry, we will be hearing from scientists, experts on technological and security risks government ministers and local resilience forums, as well as hearing perspectives from the insurance sector, regulators, the military and experts on infrastructure resilience - to name a few. But we need varied input, and we request as many people and organisations from as wide and diverse a range as possible to respond to our call for evidence. Let’s not limit our imaginations when it comes to potential catastrophes, because we need to be prepared.
The more ready we are, and the more we’ve exercised our preparations, the less we will have to improvise and the more effective we will be when a catastrophe does strike.
It is prudent to invest resources in preventing threats, but the Committee’s aim is also to encourage a mindset of resilience within the country and its people and organisations. That will enable us to recover more quickly and stave off and mitigate bad things as they happen – and some will happen. And if we get it right, we can export our thinking to other parts of the world. We need to be adaptable, flexible and agile to unforeseen risks. The Committee wishes to ensure, to the extent that we can, that our country is protected from significant harm.
It’s not an easy thing to do, but nobody suggested that it was.
Lord Arbuthnot is a Conservative member of the House of Lords and chair of the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee.