We knew this would happen. So why weren’t we ready?

The government’s national security advisers warned of the threat of a pandemic. “I don’t know why more wasn’t done,” said one

April 07, 2020
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, outside the ExCel centre—home to the NHS's new Nightingale Hospital. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, outside the ExCel centre—home to the NHS's new Nightingale Hospital. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

“The risk of human pandemic disease remains one of the highest we face,” stated the UK government’s 2010 national security strategy. The “possible impacts of a future pandemic,” it continued, “could be that up to one half of the UK population becomes infected, resulting in between 50,000 and 750,000 deaths in the UK, with corresponding disruption to everyday life.”

According to the government’s national risk register, published at the same time, a pandemic would lead to “normal life… likely fac[ing] wide social and economic disruption; significant threats to the continuity of essential services; lower production levels; shortages; and distribution difficulties. Individual organisations may suffer from the pandemic’s impact on staff absenteeism therefore reducing the services available.”

In short, we knew this would happen. Ten years ago, the government’s new national security council, led by its first ever national security adviser, Peter Ricketts, placed the risk of a pandemic higher and greater than a military invasion. Why, then, were we not prepared?

“We put it up in lights,” recalled Ricketts, when I spoke to him over the phone last week. “But it never got the resourcing because there was always an immediate crisis.” And yet, the 2010 strategy was written in the wake of the swine flu pandemic. “That should have been a wake-up call,” said Ricketts. “I don’t know why more wasn’t done. There was always a higher priority than buying more ventilators.”

His successor, Mark Lyall Grant, who authored the follow-up strategy in 2015 that also categorised a pandemic as a “tier one” risk, was even blunter, questioning the role of other government departments. “Getting the Treasury to allocate money for contingencies is extremely difficult,” he told me. Furthermore, “I don’t recall the Department of Health (DoH) arguing that they needed more money to meet this risk.”

One reason the Treasury and the DoH might have been reluctant to spend any extra money on dealing with the possibility of a pandemic is because the government repeatedly insisted there was no extra money for anything. The UK’s realisation that pandemics were a major risk coincided with the longest period of austerity since the Second World War.

“Our ability to meet these current and future threats depends crucially on tackling the budget deficit,” wrote David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the foreword to the 2010 national security strategy. “An economic deficit is also a security deficit.” On budgets, “tough choices” would need to be made, they wrote.

Those choices were still being made seven years later. Just three months after Theresa May dismissed a nurse’s appeal for a pay rise by arguing there was “no magic money tree,” the government published a new national risk register. It noted that the likelihood of “emerging infectious disease” had increased in the two years since the last national security strategy.

Instead of promising more money, the minister for resilience and efficiency, Caroline Nokes, suggested that the UK’s “long experience” with resilience would be enough. “Call it what you will, but whether through the fabled ‘stiff upper lip,’ ‘Blitz spirit’ or just a stubborn determination, our resilience can be seen at the forefront of our handling of emergencies.”

It wasn’t just a lack of money, though. In the 2015 national security strategy—“a much better document” than 2010, Lyall Grant claims—89 specific commitments were made to ensure that every part of the strategy was implemented. A sub-committee was set-up to check on their progress and report back to parliament.

As we were talking by phone, Lyall Grant flicked through the 89 commitments, searching for the ones related to a pandemic. “Cyber, dark web, illegal firearms, biosecurity… I don’t see any specific commitment at that time for any specific contingency plan.” This, he accepts, was an error. “Had there been a specific commitment on the strategy that would have put more spotlight on it at different levels rather than leaving it to the Department of Health.”

*** It is easy to point at the various government documents—national security strategies, risk registers, strategic defence and security reviews—and find the evidence that proves that we knew this was going to happen. But claiming something is a priority doesn’t really matter if no one believes it really is. And that was the problem. For Whitehall, the risk of a pandemic was too obscure, too hard to imagine. Even when the document was there, in black and white, stating the threat as clearly and as boldly as possible.

Our entire national security infrastructure is set up to prevent traditional threats—invasions, terrorist attacks, something created by an enemy. A virus operates in a different manner. A virus does not hold press conferences threatening death and destruction or release grainy propaganda videos. A virus does not carry out a nuclear weapons test or dismantle democracy. Until it exists, a virus will not be mentioned in ambassadorial cables, or raised by the security services in daily briefings, or be the focus of an in-depth profile in a national newspaper.

When the public inquiry takes place, these documents will be pored over. Questions will be asked about why they weren’t acted upon. But it’s not as simple to argue this was a failure of government; it was also a failure of imagination.