If the spread of Covid-19 has done anything, it has shown the inadequacy of your degree of preparedness and level of protection in the face of the (inter)national emergency. While no country has emerged as an exemplar in meeting the unique challenges – New Zealand has perhaps come close – the Coronavirus has illustrated the need for a better response across all elements of the public-private sector.
Countries like New Zealand and the USA to name but two do have civil defence or emergency management agencies to co-ordinate their responses to major disruptions. Some are large bureaucracies – the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for instance, has 240,000 employees and incorporates 22 separate agencies. Yet, size does necessarily equate to effectiveness: the DHS’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina was not its finest hour. Others have smaller organisations – New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency has around 50 people and 16 regional Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups. It is acknowledged that both cited examples have had to deal with more severe natural disasters than the UK has thankfully experienced – until now.
In the past, the UK has possessed a civil defence organisation. From 1949 the Civil Defence Corps (CDC) existed to prepare for and respond to a Cold War nuclear attack. By March 1956, the CDC had 330,000 personnel, largely volunteers, based around the country with regular training and exercising. It was disbanded in 1968 as the nuclear threat waned.
Now we have a threat as great as any nuclear exchange, if lacking the physical destruction. The fallout from Covid-19 is immense and potentially long lasting. The co-ordination of our response to date has been through government departments and separate agencies, with the occasional convening of an emergency committee (COBRA) at the centre. Regional requirements have been directed to local authorities and local resilience fora.
When we look back at this level of organisation, it is likely to be seen as being inadequate for the nature of the Covid-19 threat and probably for other serious, national challenges. Certainly, the Civil Contingencies Act (passed 16 years ago, and in urgent need of updating) and the small Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) in the Cabinet Office have appeared to lack sufficient firepower in the crisis. Interestingly, the Prime Minister at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 talked of introducing a national co-ordination task force to deal with large-scale disasters but nothing appears to have emerged since.
Now is the time to act. We need to (re)create a standing, national preparedness and protection organisation with ministerial powers that can oversee efforts on a day-to-day basis in readiness for, response to, and resilience around major disasters. It should bring together and co-ordinate official agencies like the CCS, OSCT, NCSC, CPNI, etc, and take the lead role in organising contributions from key departments like DfT, BEIS, Home Office, etc. Such a body would assume primacy in any major emergency and have established contacts, resources and personnel at its fingertips. Like the old CDC, it could include an army of volunteers, organised regionally, who receive training – from first aid to contact tracing to logistics – on a regular but standing basis.
Equally importantly, the organisation would assume a co-ordinating role with business and trade organisations, as well as voluntary groups, in readiness for a major public-private engagement. That co-ordinated engagement was sadly lacking at Grenfell, where businesses were willing to help but lacked direction, and it has also been evident in the Covid-19 response to a large degree: last-minute calls for the manufacture of ventilators were admirable but not a sign of competence. The organisation would also strengthen local resilience fora that currently lack a strong and effective business representation at senior level. It could do more than put out a call for spare blankets and vacant hotel rooms in a crisis. Having the structures and resources in advance, including pre-designated warehousing and accommodation, would be a mark of readiness. It is worth bearing in mind that the large supermarket chains have the largest logistical capacity in the country but integration needs pre-planning and central co-ordination if operators are to play a meaningful role in a national disaster.
The fact that there is no UK national preparedness and protection organisation in place and ready to go is telling and a sign of how much we need to travel to put the UK in the first league of civil resilience. If that readiness was achieved in a meaningful way then the nation could also lay claim to an enhanced level of deterrence against any actor who wished the country harm through a malicious act. Nuclear submarines provide one pillar of our nuclear deterrent but are impudent in the face of a biological agent like SARS-CoV-2.