The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed severe problems in the British state’s emergency response capabilities which have cost time and lives and rocked public confidence in the state’s ability to protect them. Solving these problems must be underpinned by structural reform and a recognition that crisis response is best managed not through the plethora of disparate bodies and protocols which exist at present, but through a unified Disaster Response Agency.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the British state was ill-prepared to deal with a crisis of its scale and nature. The UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011 – the most recent, publicly available paper on the UK response to such an emergency – states “It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so” (p. 28). It is to the state’s fortune that this policy has not been more widely publicised, contradicting with cool indifference both the actions of those states most successful at tackling COVID-19, and the present policy of the British government. Moreover, that the 2011 plans appear to have enjoyed no significant alteration since their original publication reveals a startling complacency, discordant with the 2017 National Risk Register (NRR) identification of pandemics as among the likeliest crises to seriously threaten public health over the coming years.
The pandemic has illustrated in grim colour the paramount importance of a more thorough approach to crisis management than that outlined above. Developing such an approach requires us to eschew scapegoating and recognise that individual failures have been symptomatic of deeper-rooted structural and cultural faults. The poor material preparation for the handling of natural threats is at least partly the consequence of the regularity with which officials are expected to leap between briefs and departments, stymieing a buildup of specialist knowledge and experience stored within a single government body.
The creation of such a body with specific responsibility for the prevention and mitigation of future natural crises is the best framework through which national emergency response can be developed and implemented. The pandemic has inculcated a host of individuals across myriad fields with experience of managing emergencies. It is through harnessing talent in business, for instance, that the UK has become a world-leader in vaccine procurement and delivery, and the wealth of human capital such as this which the pandemic has cultivated ought to be tapped to form the backbone of a Disaster Response Agency.
The work and advice of individuals from diverse fields, experienced in crisis management and working in tandem, will provide emergency response plans superior to those made by officials viewing these problems in abstract. Likewise, a dedicated cadre of scientists employed by the Agency would be able to continuously monitor global developments, updating policy recommendations to Ministers on at least an annual basis and thereby keeping pace with threats which are inherently quick to evolve. This would further foster a culture of proactivity which could yield wider benefits were it to be allowed to cascade throughout other governmental bodies.
Furthermore, a Disaster Response Agency headed by an apolitical figure has the potential to cool political jealousies and circumvent the parochialism which has occasionally bedevilled departments in the midst of our pandemic response. The competing and sometimes conflicting objectives of, for example, the Department for Health and Social Care and HM Treasury, have squandered time and led to inconsistent communication from various sources. Insofar as this has been visible to the public, the pandemic has been a challenge not merely to our physical health but also to our civic health, dangerously eroding public confidence in state institutions and bringing into question their ability to fulfil their first duty in keeping us from harm.
A single corpus of policy and advice from a Disaster Response Agency would allow for the government to act with the consistency and speed which emergencies of the pandemic’s intensity require, as opposed to the inter-departmental disagreement and delay which has been a regrettable hallmark of the past year: the sprinter will, after all, always outperform the man running a three-legged race. The drawing of talent from various fields both public and private would also ensure advice was balanced and sympathetic to the needs of various constituencies, allowing the Agency to serve as a representative forum in which a doctor and small business owner both experienced in crisis response would be able to work collaboratively, avoiding a repeat of the polarisation between such groups which appears to have grown apace during the pandemic’s course. Similarly, public confidence will be most effectively buttressed by a communications strategy fronted by impartial experts, who have been most favourably perceived during the pandemic in contrast to the Ministers who, despite their best efforts, will inevitably be perceived as at least partly motivated by partisan interest.
A final, and perhaps most intriguing, benefit of a Disaster Response Agency would be the holistic view of crises it would be able to assume. Although COVID-19 has placed health emergencies at the centre of our attention, other natural disasters are likely to become more common this century. The UK wildfires of 2018 and the flooding which now regularly blights much of the country in wintertime stand as examples of the ecological disasters which the effects of climate change engender. While attempts at departmental reorganisation in the pandemic’s wake, such as the the founding of the National Institute for Health Protection, are encouraging, it is not clear they will be able to take the wide-ranging view a Disaster Response Agency would in identifying common links between recent and future disruptions and, consequently, the common solutions they might share in areas such as logistics response. Ambitious though this goal is, with the right funding and political will marshalled behind it, a Disaster Response Agency would present an opportunity for the UK to become a world-leader in crisis prevention and management.