The government has appointed a head of resilience, Oliver Dowden has revealed, following a commitment by the Cabinet Office to establish the role last year.
The Cabinet Office secretary named Mary Jones as the first appointee to the new role while giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry yesterday. Members of the inquiry were grilling the minister on how government is working to improve its resilience to crises such as future pandemics.
Jones was awarded an OBE for public service in the 2021 New Years honours for her previous work at the Cabinet Office, where she worked on Brexit, home affairs and constitutional issues. She joined the Office for Life Sciences as a deputy director in 2020.
She is heading up the Resilience Directorate in the Cabinet Office, which was created to help establish a more strategic approach to national resilience and coordinate efforts across government to strengthen it.
The department announced plans to appoint a head of resilience in December under a new UK Government Resilience Framework, following a commitment in the 2021 Integrated Review to strengthen the government’s approach to resilience.
It said the job would complement the existing role of the national security adviser and support the broader goal to avoid a repeat of the Covid pandemic, where “treating [it] as a health emergency meant that there was limited planning outside of the healthcare sector”.
Since the integrated review was published, the Cabinet Office has also established a dedicated COBR unit to continue to lead the government’s response to emergencies. The unit is led by Roger Hargreaves, who is also director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and is giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry today.
“That is the crisis unit to deal with issues as they immediately emerge – so in the short term,” Dowden told the inquiry.
The head of resilience’s role, meanwhile, is to ensure government does not “lose sight of the longer-term challenges”, he said.
“One is about joining up whole of government in the form of resilience, one is about the immediate crisis response,” he added.
“In terms of the overall architecture of the Cabinet Office, they sit in slightly different reporting structures,” the minister explained, with the Resilience Directorate sitting in the Economic and Domestic Secretariat and the COBR unit in the National Security Secretariat.
Asked how the head of resilience role differs to the pre-existing director of national resilience job in the Cabinet Office, Dowden said: “The principal difference is the split that I described to you… ensuring that we have both the focus on the challenges as they hit, the immediate management of those, and taking the longer-term risk – the longer-term view,” he said.
He added that the directorate will look at strategies such as the Biological Security Strategy; actions to bolster critical national infrastructure resilience; resilience to cyberattacks; net-zero strategies – “all of those cross-government efforts that ensure that these crises don't happen in the first place, as well as the resilience for when they do”.
Pressed on how the work of the new resilience function differs from the existing responsibilities of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat, the minister said: “Well, I think one of the problems that we identified previously, and what we're seeking to address with this, is the tendency for the person that has overall charge of this to permanently be focused on the immediate risks and not to take that longer-term view.”
Dowden said he now has “totally separate” meetings with the two officials he named – with Jones briefing him on “where we are with resilience and prevention” and Hargreaves on immediate challenges.
“I think in that way you ensure that one doesn't become the poorer relation of the other,” he said.