Pandemic shows need for ‘national emergency agency’, security expert tells government committee

Jan 28, 2021

A RADICAL shake-up is required in how the UK deals with major crises on the scale of the current pandemic, a leading academic expert on national security has told a committee of the House of Lords.

Former industrialist and MoD official Dr Simon Harwood said it was time for a new body which not only tries to pinpoint what could go wrong but also sets out the steps which need to be taken so the UK can cope with the country’s next extraordinary or extreme event.

This could be another pandemic or for other ‘major risks’, such as a serious terrorist attack, cyber-biological threat, space-weather or the potential catastrophic impact of man-made climate change – such as flooding or other extreme weather events.

Dr Harwood, director of defence and security at Cranfield University, was speaking this week to the House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee. Its members include some of Britain’s leading scientists and senior figures such as former NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson.

Dr Simon Harwood

Speaking to the committee Dr Harwood said: “What use is simply having a list of risks that we do nothing about? What we need, what I believe we need as a country, is a comprehensive resilience framework that looks at the risk and also our ability to mitigate it.”

It is vital that the organisation in charge of deciding which risks were the most dangerous ones should also have the job of understanding how and whether they could be mitigated, he added.

He told the committee that the UK needs to move away from the “ever expanding list of risks into what are we going to do about them,” which he describes as “connected resilience”.

This new organisation – a new ‘national emergency agency’ – could have its own personnel with one of its roles being to co-ordinate volunteer reservists able to work across communities in the face of another crisis, he said. 

“We need leadership and decision-making from a dedicated national level operation capable of working nationally, internationally and globally. We cannot continue to rely on the outstanding work the armed forces are doing to step in at any and every extraordinary event as has so often has happened; flooding, foot and mouth, disruption of the petrol supply chain, Covid, ebola. 

“This time with Covid, the UK was fortunate that our armed forces were not being deployed extensively overseas on a mission.” 

Dr Harwood hailed the military as the “fourth emergency service, able to work across our communities, bring together and give training and medical skills, crowd control, logistics, communication, essentially a group drilled to take their place alongside local councils and the emergency services.”

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The UK’s lack of resilience in some key sectors – exposed by the coronavirus pandemic – was now a risk in itself, he told the committee.

“Covid-19 exposed everything that brittle about making efficiency the priority for both the public and private sector,” he said. “In a business case, in efficiency terms, why would you invest to mitigate a low probability event?”

Dr Harwood is part of a team at Cranfield University which is looking at the interconnectedness of different threats – from pandemics to information security – the impact that the UK could face should they happen, and how to try and ensure that there is a plan for recovery in the worst circumstances.

Cranfield researchers and academics are working on a multi-disciplinary basis in this area and include specialists on organisational resilience, environmental risk management, foresight, resilient infrastructure and safety, accident and investigation.

Cranfield is a UK leading centre of expertise on connected resilience and is playing a major role on the new National Preparedness Commission led by Lord Toby Harris.

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