Skip to main content

Government failed to act on its security plans for a pandemic

18 December 2020

The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy is today publishing its report “Biosecurity and national security”. The report assesses how prepared the Government is for major biological security risks, using the covid-19 pandemic as a test case  — to consider whether and how the identification of risk in our National Security system provokes a proportionate response, in terms of means to address that risk.

Regrettably, it finds that this test case exposed profound shortcomings in how the Government safeguards national security. With regards to biological security, the Committee calls on the Government to address long-term gaps in the planning and preparation for biological risks to the UK’s national security. The Committee asserts that the novel features of covid-19, for example its high level of infectiousness compared with flu, do not fully explain the Government’s inadequate response.

The report finds that insufficient attention was paid to important capabilities ahead of the pandemic. For example, the Government failed seriously to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation and contact-tracing capabilities, despite the Government’s earlier Biological Security Strategy’s emphasis on ‘Detection’, and despite predicting in 2017 that it was ‘likely’ that a new infectious disease would affect the UK in the next five years. It is not clear the Government considered the adequacy of its national laboratory network ahead of time. The pandemic also exposed vulnerabilities in the UK’s supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and in its ability to tackle false or misleading information online. 

The report notes a striking absence of leadership of the UK’s biological security as a whole, with neither the National Security Council (NSC) nor the Cabinet Office assuming primary responsibility. Although a pandemic has been a ‘tier-1’ security risk since 2010, there has been only one ‘tier-1’ national health crisis exercise in the last decade (‘Exercise Cygnus’) and this did not cover all the Government’s pre-planned stages of pandemic response. This was not even mentioned in the Biological Security Strategy that came two years later. There is a lack of auditing of the implementation of the lessons from exercises within Departments and inadequate knowledge sharing. Frontline organisations — local authorities, emergency responders and Local Resilience Forums — have sometimes lacked the intelligence and support they need from central government to carry out their role effectively.


The Committee makes a series of recommendations, with particular emphasis on stronger leadership and responsibility. It calls on the Government to prioritise preparedness.

The report argues that there are a number of measures the Government must take to prepare better for major disruptive events, including introducing a regular and inclusive programme of exercises to test the UK capabilities. The Committee calls for ring-fenced multi-year funding for Government departments to support risk horizon-scanning, as well as a long-term plan of investment and support for frontline organisations, particularly Local Resilience Forums. Additionally, the Government must strengthen supply chains for dealing with future emergencies, to learn the lessons of the current pandemic.

The report calls for a new body — a national centre for biosecurity — to pool expertise on the full spectrum of risks facing the UK, as well as a task force within the Cabinet Office. The Committee calls for a responsible minister to report annually to Parliament on the state of national preparations for major security risks, including the state of the national stockpile of critical items, surge capacity within public services and the level of training that ministers have received in emergency response.

Chair of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Dame Margaret Beckett MP, said:

"The year has been challenging for all of us, with many having to make personal and painful sacrifices. The news of covid-19 vaccines is welcome in the run-up to Christmas.

However, the pandemic in the UK was not unpredicted. The Committee found that a pandemic was after all a matter of when, rather than if. It is clear that the Government could have, and should have, done more to prepare. Its negligence of key capabilities led to unnecessary fumbling for solutions, when instead the country needed decisive action. The Government at times seems to have treated a vaccine as a 'fix-all', with little pre-consideration of our capabilities for detecting where the virus is and bringing cases under control.

The pandemic has thrown our vulnerabilities into sharp relief and it is vital that we use this opportunity for some critical introspection. The Government must acknowledge the areas in which they failed to adequately prepare a response to biosecurity threats, such as the one we are currently facing.  

The Government must learn lessons, not just for future pandemics but to fortify the structures we have in place to address all types of major national security risks.

It must also consider what the real-life impact of this tier-1 risk can teach us about our capacity to deal with other risks of the same magnitude."

Further information

Image: DFID via Flickr