Managing extreme risks

Think tank: Institute for Government

Author(s): Rosa Hodgkin; Tom Sasse

July 20, 2022

This report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at how government can learn from Covid to be better prepared for the next crisis.

With the UK facing a growing number of extreme risks, the current government has failed to learn from the Covid pandemic and so the new administration must urgently take action to ensure the UK is better prepared next time. Managing Extreme Risks: How government can learn from Covid to be better prepared for the next crisis finds that the threats the country faces – from climate change to biosecurity threats and pandemics to cyber attacks – are growing in number and severity, with the UK particularly vulnerable given its interconnectedness. The Covid crisis laid bare the human and economic cost of poor preparedness. Despite having identified pandemics as a key risk, departments had failed to plan for economic support and closing schools, and significantly underestimated the potential impact of a new infectious disease – suggesting it might lead to only 100 deaths. The current heatwave also shows the government’s failure to prepare for risks that we know will almost certainly materialise in the near future. The report, which draws on interviews and a roundtable held with officials and external experts, sets out how departments struggled to prioritise risks alongside other day to day pressures, while central coordination was weak. It also points to a focus on efficiency that left the UK with less healthcare capacity than similar countries and limited external scrutiny, which meant that preparedness was generally only assessed when crises occurred. The report argues that this must change if the UK is to avoid a repeat in future crises. The Johnson government promised to “learn lessons” but an update to the National Resilience Strategy, promised this spring, has yet to materialise, with interviewees suggesting the issue has not been prioritised at senior levels within government.