The key risks identified in the National Risk Register and how prepared the UK is for them, especially in light of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, are the focus of an upcoming oral question on 4 June 2020: “Lord Harris of Haringey (Labour) is to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of national preparedness to respond to the key risks identified in the National Risk Register and, in the light of the experience with the Covid-19 pandemic, what plans they have to produce a routine statement of preparations in response to each risk in the Register”.
This article provides a brief introduction to the subject to assist Members in preparing for the question.
What is the National Risk Register?
The National Risk Register provides information to the public about risks that could cause “serious disruption” to people’s lives and how the Government is identifying, assessing, preparing for and dealing with such emergencies. Risks included in the register range from terrorist attacks to natural events like flooding. It is based on information from the National Risk Assessment, which is a classified assessment of risks that could happen in the United Kingdom (UK) over the next five years.
The first National Risk Register was published in 2008, fulfilling a commitment made in the National Security Strategy. The most recent edition was published in September 2017.
What are the risks identified in the National Risk Register and what action has the Government taken to mitigate them?
The risks identified in the National Risk Register are summarised into the following categories:
- natural hazards;
- major accidents;
- societal risks; and
- malicious attacks.
One of the risks to the UK detailed in the register is natural hazards, such as flooding. For example, the register notes that a series of storms in 2015/16 resulted in “heavy and sustained rainfall”, leading to 17,600 properties being flooded, several bridges collapsing and economic damage estimated to have cost approximately £1.6 billion.
To reduce the UK’s vulnerability to flooding, the Government said it would invest £2.5 billion over six years (2015–21) in England to build 1,500 new flood defence schemes to “better protect” more than 300,000 homes. In addition, Scotland would invest £420 million over ten years (2017–27), with 42 flood protection schemes or engineering works scheduled to begin between 2016 and 2021 to improve protection for 10,000 homes. Similarly, in Wales, £144 million would be invested in managing flood risk over five years, also from 2016 to 2021.
Both human and animal diseases are listed as risks in the register. It notes that human diseases “take a variety of forms”, with some diseases having the potential to cause a civil emergency due to the number of people they might affect in a short space of time. This includes an influenza pandemic, which is described in the register as a “natural event” that happens when a “unique flu virus evolves that few people (if any) are immune to”.
To mitigate the risk of influenza and disease pandemics, the Government outlined in the register the measures it had been taking to prepare for such events:
- Planning: the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy covers strategic planning, response and scientific evidence;
- Coordination: this involves government departments, devolved administration, public health agencies and devolved NHS branches sharing plans and information; and
- International collaboration: the UK Government collaborates with other countries to work on prevention, detection, and research. In addition, the World Health Organisation has an influenza programme which provides member states with guidance, support and coordination of activities.
In addition, the register outlines that in response to a pandemic, the UK has the following measures in place:
- Detection: specialist epidemiology and microbiology capabilities exist to “identify, characterise and respond” to infectious diseases;
- Antivirals: the register contends that the Government stockpiles “enough” medicines to help treat people showing symptoms during a flu pandemic. However, such medicines are “not a cure”;
- Vaccines: these are developed “as soon as possible” once new flu strains are identified. This can take at least four to six months after a pandemic begins; and
- Personal protective equipment (PPE): the register states that emergency responders have PPE for severe pandemics and infectious diseases. It also notes that there are protocols in place for infection control both before and during an incident.
These risks include major transport accidents. The National Risk Register notes that to mitigate such risks, safety regimes and regulation exists for individual transport sectors and improvements to infrastructure. In response to major accidents, the register outlines that all transport sector operators have plans that cover a “range of possible incidents”.
The register classifies industrial action and widespread public disorder as societal risks. It notes that consequences of public disorder can include physical or psychological casualties and disruption to critical services, particularly policing and health.
In response to protests in Tottenham in 2011 which “escalated into widespread violent disorder”, the register details that “significant work” has been carried out to “improve the Government’s understanding” of how public disorder can begin. By “understanding triggers” of widespread public disorder, this allows the police to “identify risks” and prepare in advance plans to allocate and mobilise resources.
Lastly, the register notes that the UK faces a “serious and sustained threat” from terrorism. In response to the terrorism threat, the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, published in 2011, has four objectives to reduce the risk to the UK from terrorism:
- Prevent: this involves stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism in the first place;
- Protect: by strengthening the UK’s defences against a terrorist attack;
- Pursue: by stopping terrorist attacks, up to and including at the scene of attack; and
- Prepare: where an attack cannot be stopped, by mitigating its impacts.
What has the Government recently said about maintaining the National Risk Register and its preparations for such risks?
In April 2020, the Government was asked a parliamentary question about which departments were responsible for maintaining the National Risk Register and ensuring other departments have up-to-date plans to mitigate the risks mentioned in the register.
In response, the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, Lord True, said that it was the responsibility of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat within the Cabinet Office to maintain the register. Other government departments were said to be responsible for “identifying and assessing” risks. As part of this, each department was also responsible for: “overseeing levels of preparedness” within their sectors; and ensuring they have “up-to-date plans” to “mitigate and respond” to risks contained in the register.
Although the National Risk Register was published before the Covid-19 pandemic, it sets out the Government’s plans for mitigating the impact of a pandemic. During the pandemic, the Government has referred to this planning to argue that it had “well-rehearsed and robust plans in place to respond”.
However, some commentators have been critical of the Government for its Covid-19 response. In particular, for reportedly ignoring the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which recommended a strategy of testing, isolating and contact tracing; and its responsibility for PPE shortages for frontline medical and care workers.
- David Pegg, ‘Covid-19: did the UK government prepare for the wrong kind of pandemic?’, Guardian, 21 May 2020
- Sam Hilton et al, ‘This pandemic was entirely predictable. Why were we so poorly prepared?’, Telegraph (£), 13 May 2020
- David Alexander, ‘Britain is in a state of emergency. So where are its emergency planners?’, Guardian, 5 May 2020
- House of Commons, ‘Written Question: Emergencies—Risk Assessment’, 12 May 2020, 42191
- House of Lords, ‘Written Question: Emergencies—Risk Assessment’, 28 April 2020, HL3101
- House of Commons, ‘Written Question: Infectious Diseases—Disease Control’, 6 March 2020, 21241
Image by CDC from Unsplash.