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Strengthening the UK’s National Resilience: The Tasks Ahead

Toby Harris
Commentary, 8 April 2021
UK, Resilience
The need to build national resilience against acute shocks and longer-term threats is acknowledged in the UK government’s latest policy review. Diverting resources to this purpose is now the real challenge.

Over 80 years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: ‘Most of us seldom take the trouble to think. It is a troublesome and fatiguing process and often leads to uncomfortable conclusions. But crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think’ (Jawaharlal Nehru, The Unity of India: Collected Writings, 1937–1940, 1942, p. 94). The UK’s Integrated Review was published last month, but it was conceived well before the pandemic and was presaged in the Queen’s Speech that set out the government’s legislative agenda in December 2019. It was originally intended to be concluded early last year, and the 12-month delay due to the pandemic has certainly provided a stark opportunity to think deeply about the UK’s preparedness and resilience.

This process is no doubt reflected in the very welcome chapter of the Review on ‘Building resilience at home and overseas’. This warns that ‘COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last global crisis of the 2020s. As the world becomes both more interconnected and contested, incidents in one region – a novel virus, the loss of habitats or a cyber-attack – can have systemic consequences worldwide, which we cannot always predict or avert’. It concludes that the UK needs to build its resilience and address the root causes of risks, as well as increasing its preparedness to withstand and recover from crises when they occur.

Certainly, the speed with which the norms of society unravelled as a result of the pandemic – with deserted city centres, businesses shut down, enforced social distancing and mask wearing – came as a shock to many. There will undoubtedly be debate as to why the UK has suffered one of the worst coronavirus death rates worldwide, and looks to have suffered more serious economic consequences than many other countries. However, such an experience has no doubt informed the Review’s first goal: that the UK must build its national resilience, so as to reduce the impact of ‘acute shocks and longer-term challenges’.

Plans for National Resilience

The Review promises that in 2021, ‘the Government will start developing a comprehensive national resilience strategy’. It is perhaps surprising that this process is only being started this year and that such a comprehensive strategy did not exist before. Nevertheless, the strategy will contain five priority actions:

  • To establish a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to resilience, involving individuals, businesses and organisations.
  • To consider threats and hazards in the round, looking at the diverse range of risks facing the UK (malicious and non-malicious, direct and indirect, acute and chronic, as well as low-probability, but catastrophic-impact events).
  • To develop more capabilities – people, skills and equipment – that can be used across a range of scenarios.
  • To review the methodology of the National Security Risk Assessment, particularly to take account of interdependencies and cascading or compound risks.
  • To strengthen analytical, policy and operational tools, including the collection and use of data, so as to better assess cross-cutting, complex risks.

This approach is long overdue. The need to overhaul the National Security Risk Assessment was highlighted earlier this year by Suzanne Raine in a paper for RUSI, and the Institute for Government has also recently listed 10 lessons for government in responding to shocks. In addition, RUSI’s Modern Deterrence project has for a number of years demonstrated how a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to resilience is increasingly necessary in the age of hybrid and greyzone warfare, and that societal resilience can function as a crucial deterrent.

However, this developing consensus should not lead to the assumption that any of the above is easy. Indeed, some of the changes needed are generation-long endeavours. For the last 50 years or so, the UK economy has increasingly been organised on a ‘just-in-time’ basis, reducing production times in manufacturing and cutting stockpiles and stores so as to boost efficiency, decrease costs and maximise returns. However, as the Financial Times argued in an editorial last April:

‘The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed the thin margins on which much of global business runs. Highly indebted companies, working from lean inventory, supported by just-in-time supply chains and staffed by short-term contractors, have borne the brunt of the sudden blow. They will now suffer the rolling, longer-term impact of its unpredictable consequences … companies must transform their supply chains from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case models’.

Over the same 50-year period, critical infrastructure systems have – again in the name of efficiency – reduced levels of redundancy. In 2015, the National Grid had a spare power capacity of just 1.2%, the worst in a decade – and far below the margins available in the 1970s and 1980s, when the leadership of the Central Electricity Generating Board described their approach to this author as ‘belt, braces and string’.

Challenges and Vulnerabilities

The UK is not unique in also having to face up to the vulnerability of its aging critical infrastructure, which has suffered from decades of under-investment and inadequate maintenance and replacement regimes. At the same time, society’s growing reliance on ever more complex and interconnected systems – while no doubt increasing efficiency in many ways – creates its own vulnerabilities. Too many interconnections and too much interdependence risk cascade collapse if one element fails. New systems have been overlaid on top of legacy systems in such a way that in some cases they are almost impossible to disentangle, as well as being beyond the experience of many of those responsible for running and maintaining them.

The Review recognises not only that central government needs to address these issues, but also that resilience must be built into the fabric of UK society. This means that better preparedness has to be part of the mission of every local authority and every neighbourhood community. Businesses, large and small, as well as other organisations, have to take their share too.

Inevitably, in the last 12 months many businesses have had to reinvent themselves – often in ways that would have appeared unthinkable at the beginning of 2020. Some organisations have thrived, but many have struggled and some have not survived.

A report by Cranfield University entitled ‘Resilience Reimagined’, prepared for the National Preparedness Commission and published at the end of March, looked at how businesses responded to the coronavirus pandemic so as to identify what they will need to do to make themselves more resilient in the future. The research was based on interviews and discussions with 50 senior leaders from large companies and organisations, and found that most had – at best – struggled during the pandemic and were ill-prepared for the disruption it caused.

Those that coped best were the ones that already understood what was most important to their customers, and therefore what was most essential to keep delivering as the crisis unfolded. These businesses had examined in advance alternative ways of delivering core services, and had developed the ability to cope under pressure, no matter what.

This ability to adapt quickly was described by Paul Martin and Jordan Giddings in another paper for the National Preparedness Commission, ‘Building Better Resilience’, as active resilience:

‘Resilient people, businesses and institutions cope well when things go wrong. They roll with the blows, deal effectively with the adverse consequences and return quickly to a stable equilibrium. That, at least, is the conventional view. However, resilience should mean something more substantial than recovering from disruption, desirable though that is. … Active resilience means growing progressively tougher by learning from adversity and becoming better able to avoid and manage future stresses. Actively resilient people or organisations do more than just return to their prior state after an adverse event: they continually learn from their experience and develop stronger defences, making them better able to resist the next time. They are less likely to experience a crisis and cope better if they do’.

The corollary of this is that such a business or organisation is not only able to respond and adapt more effectively to a threat, but also to an opportunity, and as a result is likely to be generally more successful.

The challenge for the Review, therefore, is how government can promote and support this more agile and active resilience across the public and private sectors. The Cranfield report suggests that part of the answer must be a willingness to share much more information about threats and risks. Furthermore, it highlights the need to create a regulatory framework that challenges organisations to demonstrate their resilience, as well as their contribution to the wider resilience of society.

Making every level of government, every organisation and every community more resilient will create a kind of societal herd immunity, ensuring that the UK is better able to address future global crises – whether it is a new pandemic, a massive cyber attack or climate change. This is also true for each household and every individual. Everyone must play their part. Genuinely, as somebody once said, we are all in it together.

Planning and responding to risks is not cost-free, but not doing so is worse. That is the lesson the government must take from its own Review.

Lord Harris is Chair of the National Preparedness Commission.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Pipe Loyola M/CC BY 2.0.

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