TIT BRITISH the government believed its preparations for a pandemic were among the best in the world. In 2016, 950 officials carried out exercises for an outbreak of “swan flu”, a hypothetical disease that killed 400,000 people. He gave ministers useful guidance on enlisting retired doctors and drafting emergency legislation.
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Yet planners have not prepared for a virus that could spread asymptomatically. As they did not imagine a national lockdown, no leave plan was developed. The permanent secretary of the business department was not even aware that the exercise had taken place. Planners worried about the public reaction to mass burials and soldiers on the streets. The resulting report has remained secret. Dominic Cummings, former assistant to Boris Johnson, said deputyLast month, when a pandemic really hit, Whitehall froze.
Mr Johnson now wants to build a stronger state, one that steps in the market and tells judges and museum curators about it. He also wants it to be harder: less permeable to hostile states and more prepared for emergencies. Successive governments have reduced the fat in public services and driven out foreign investment. Mr Johnson is raising the dials, from openness to prudence, and from efficiency to resilience. The defense of the kingdom is the spirit of the time (see table). Think tanks that produced articles on state thinning under David Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016, are now full of ideas to strengthen it.
Covid-19 is a factor; concerns about other China. Brexit has shaken old certainties. The ministers are frightened by the French saber strikes on the supply of electricity in the negotiations on fishing. “For a long time, we thought it was the ‘end of history’,” says Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society, a security policy think tank aligned with government thinking. “We didn’t realize that the system was being challenged on such a scale by others.
The risk will be assessed differently. Since its creation in 2001, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the UK’s contingency planning unit, has focused on probable emergencies, such as terrorist attacks and flooding. In the future, it will prepare more for the unlikely but catastrophic, such as nuclear accidents and crises occurring simultaneously. The ministers foresee a dazzling “situation center”, bristling with data flows.
Health policy will be more like the fight against terrorism. England’s sluggish public health agency has been dismantled and replaced with a new body focused on epidemics and other emergencies. The new Joint Biosafety Center, which searches for epidemics, was built by securocrats and is modeled after the UK’s Terrorism Analysis Center. The government wants EAR be made in Britain, breaking its dependence on China. A new state vaccine plant is expected to open in the fall.
It turned out that the British did not panic and should continue to do their part. Britain’s “integrated review” of defense and foreign policy published in March called for a Scandinavian “whole-of-society” posture. Penny Mordaunt, minister responsible for civil contingencies and co-author of “Greater: Britain after the storm”, wants the state to mobilize those who have volunteered to fight against the coronavirus, by directing them towards “national missions”, such as care for the elderly. The ministers plan to reorganize military reserves and create a new cadre of civilian reservists, such as medics and retired civil servants, who can be mobilized in times of crisis. This is a radical change, says Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, from the dominant idea of government as “an umbrella that stretches across society, so that the rest of between us has nothing to do ”.
Britain can only continue to be open, officials say, if it is more secure against hostile states. A strengthened law on the screening of foreign investments entered into force in April. Ministers provide powers to block stock quotes for national security reasons and to protect academic research from espionage. The Home Office intends to modernize the Official Secrets Act and adopt a US-style registry of lobbyists and advertisers acting for foreign interests. Last year, the government recognized the existence of JSTAT, a Whitehall body monitoring hostile states.
Most of these grand plans have yet to be implemented, and Whitehall’s culture does not encourage crisis planning. The ministers go through the ministries. The government has never held so much data, but ministers say they feel ignorant of the threats. Ms Mordaunt believes they need mandatory crisis training and rigorous, regular exercises from Whitehall.
At the moment, the risks are spread across departments, and those not in charge often do little – so the education ministry had no plans for home schooling when the pandemic hit. Plans are not reviewed by deputys, or external watchdogs. The answer, according to Sir David Lidington, a former cabinet minister, is increased pressure from the prime minister and binding targets to improve resilience. “If you don’t get clear direction from the highest political level, inertia sets in,” he says.
A more resilient state will come at a cost in a time of tight money. The trajectory of public finances is uncertain and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has already planned further cuts in all departments other than health, education and defense. Mr Johnson has other priorities, including reducing the backlog in courts and hospitals and “leveling” poor cities. Greater restrictions on foreign investment will result in lower tax revenues and higher infrastructure spending.
Mr Cameron’s years of austerity have left utilities less able to deal with covid-19. EAR stocks have declined and municipal emergency plans have been reduced by 35% in a decade. Britain has fewer hospital beds than France and Germany per person. Ministers face tough choices, officials say, about whether to direct spending to new projects or put “contingent capacity” (ie wiggle room) back into the system. . This kind of capacity was once difficult to justify, but the crisis has revived an old idea of the state; the one who fears the worst, and takes care of the just in case. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Defending the Kingdom”