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Managing extreme risks: How government can learn from Covid to be better prepared for the next crisis

The government has failed to learn from the Covid pandemic: the new administration must take action to ensure the UK is better prepared next time.

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With the UK facing a growing number of extreme risks, the current government has failed to learn from the Covid pandemic and so the new administration must urgently take action to ensure the UK is better prepared next time. 

The report finds that the threats the country faces - from climate change to biosecurity threats and pandemics to cyber attacks - are growing in number and severity, with the UK particularly vulnerable given its interconnectedness.

The Covid crisis laid bare the human and economic cost of poor preparedness. Despite having identified pandemics as a key risk, departments had failed to plan for economic support and closing schools, and significantly underestimated the potential impact of a new infectious disease – suggesting it might lead to only 100 deaths. The current heatwave also shows the government’s failure to prepare for risks that we know will almost certainly materialise in the near future.

The report, which draws on interviews and a roundtable held with officials and external experts, sets out how departments struggled to prioritise risks alongside other day to day pressures, while central coordination was weak. It also points to a focus on efficiency that left the UK with less healthcare capacity than similar countries and limited external scrutiny, which meant that preparedness was generally only assessed when crises occurred. The report argues that this must change if the UK is to avoid a repeat in future crises.

The Johnson government promised to “learn lessons” but an update to the National Resilience Strategy, promised this spring, has yet to materialise, with interviewees suggesting the issue has not been prioritised at senior levels within government. 

The report recommends that the next government should: 

  • Adopt a modified ‘three lines of defence’ model, considered best practice in the private sector and other countries, which separates out responsibilities for risk management, oversight and audit.
  • Keep day to day risk management with departments, with permanent secretaries explicitly responsible for contingency planning.  
  • Strengthen the Cabinet Office unit responsible for risk management and make sure it has the power to proactively assess and hold departments to account on preparedness.
  • Appoint a strong minister or group of ministers to convene a new cabinet committee to coordinate management of cross-government risks, chaired by a powerful minister, such as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 
  • Consider creating a new external body, along the lines of the Climate Change Committee and OBR, to provide expert advice and scrutiny of the UK’s preparedness for extreme risks.
Institute for Government

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