Colin Talbot: Why we weren't ready for Covid-19

Dominic Cummings has claimed there was no plan for a pandemic when coronavirus struck. Was he right?
Dominic Cummings said the UK was not ready for a pandemic. Photo: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

By Colin Talbot

14 Jun 2021

When Dominic Cummings sensationally claimed that there was no plan to deal with a pandemic, was he right? And was his blaming of Whitehall right? There were plans – but they were neglected, underfunded and didn’t suit the government of Boris Johnson.

In the mid-2000s the then-Labour government spent quite a lot of energy establishing a civil contingencies system – and passed a Civil Contingencies Act – precisely to prepare for a national emergency like a pandemic. Indeed, a pandemic was the top of the risk register – though it was expected to be a flu pandemic, not coronavirus.

So why can Cummings plausibly claim 15 years later that “there was no plan”

Let’s go right back to the year 1999 and the millennium bug. In the run-up to 2000 there was widespread fear that computer systems that only used two digits to denote the year would crash when the year became “00”. 

Huge amounts of effort were expended ensuring that the millennium bug didn’t bring on the collapse of civilisation. And it didn’t. But it did highlight the need to be alert for big, improbable but high-impact events – what later became known as “black swans”.

The fear of such events was heightened when Britain was hit by several examples. In the year 2000 it was fuel and floods. In September protests by lorry drivers who blockaded fuel storage and distribution almost brought the country to a standstill. Then in October the UK experienced extensive flooding – the Met Office reported it was the worst since 1947.

These three crises prompted the New Labour government of Tony Blair to start reforms to the UK’s antiquated civil defence system, as it had previously been called. Their first step was to move responsibility from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office and create the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in July 2001.

Even as the new system was being formed two more events emphasised the need for it. In February 2001 an outbreak of foot and mouth disease started in the UK and lasted all year. And then passenger planes were flown into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC – 9/11 shook the world.

Over the next few years the government put a lot of effort in creating a modern civil contingencies system. The most visible evidence of this was the passing of the Civil Contingencies Act in 2004, which imposed duties on a range of public and some private bodies to prepare for dealing with a national emergency.

This in turn led to the government producing an annual National Risk Register, first published in 2008.

At the top of the risk matrix was “pandemic influenza” – a place it continued to occupy in every National Risk Register until now. The threat of a pandemic – not just influenza – should have become ever clearer as first SARS (2003) and then MERS (2012) highlighted the danger.

Over the next eight years contingency planning carried on – numerous guidance and planning documents were published, and indeed some explicitly focused on a possible pandemic.

In 2016 the Westminster government even carried out a massive exercise – called Cygnus – simulating a pandemic flu outbreak and response. Over three days in October, 950 participants from devolved administrations, the Department of Health and 12 other central government departments, NHS Wales, NHS England, Public Health England, eight Local Resilience Forums and six prisons took part. It included four simulated Cobra meetings.

But it seems clear that the political interest in planning for disasters and emergencies that was strong in the period from 2000 until about 2008 had waned considerably since then.

In 2008 the global financial crisis gripped almost all the government’s attention. It was followed by the growing political crisis of the Brown government, the 2010 general election and then the coalition government – and austerity – occupied centre stage.

Although a lot of contingency planning carried on behind the scenes, interest and funding dwindled. The Cygnus exercise illustrated many problems, but few of them were addressed. And it focused on a flu pandemic – despite the SARS and MERS episodes – which has significant differences with Covid-19 pandemic that has arrived.

Some of the issues could not have been foreseen – but many could, and indeed were. It’s fair enough to suggest some of the mistakes were systemic – but in the end it was people who decided not to prepare properly and allow the civil contingencies system to atrophy. 

Colin Talbot is emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester and a research associate at the University of Cambridge

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