openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Parliament’s security experts slate British government pandemic planning

A high-level committee “notes a striking absence of leadership of the UK’s biological security”. So why haven’t you heard about this before?

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Paul Rogers
22 December 2020, 3.48pm
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Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy

For the past few months, a British group has campaigned for an emergency judge-led inquiry into the pandemic. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK has not got very far: nothing has been offered beyond the promise of an inquiry at some time in the future. Now, though, a parliamentary report has been published which goes some way towards that aim.

It comes from the rather grandly named Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy and is called ‘Biosecurity and National Security’. Because of its focus, the committee concentrates on the government’s preparedness for a pandemic, so it says little about the detailed handling, including the outsourcing, creeping privatisation, chumocracy and all the other criticisms, but it is still a remarkable document on two counts.

The first is summarised in Friday’s press release announcing the publication of the report, which was headed ‘Government failed to act on its security plans for a pandemic’. Just quoting from that release gives a good flavour of the report. It talks of “profound shortcomings in how the government safeguards national security”, and says that the committee “calls on the government to address long-term gaps in the planning and preparation for biological risks to the UK’s national security”. Perhaps most damning of all: “The report notes a striking absence of leadership of the UK’s biological security as a whole, with neither the National Security Council (NSC) nor the Cabinet Office assuming primary responsibility.”

That is the group’s interim verdict on the government’s handling of the pandemic, the worst direct security threat to British people since the height of the Cold War and in which the UK will be very lucky to get away with fewer than 100,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands suffering from long-term health damage.

The second reason the report is remarkable is where it came from. This was not some lefty think tank but a joint committee of the Houses of Lords and Commons and about as impeccably establishment and mainstream as you could imagine. Its chair is Margaret Beckett, one of the very few competent foreign ministers of the last few decades, who at least ‘got’ climate change. Members include the former director of MI5, Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones; the former Tory defence minister, Lord Tom King; leading right-wing Tory backbenchers such as Edward Leigh; two former soldiers – Bob Stewart MP and Tom Tugendhat MP; and Margaret Thatcher’s key foreign affairs advisor, Lord Charles Powell.

Their report was unanimous.

It was published after the end of the parliamentary session and very close to Christmas, and was missed by almost all the mainstream media. It is easy to be suspicious but on this occasion that is probably not fair. Work started only in the late summer, extensive written evidence was gathered in September and early October, oral evidence was taken until well into November and the final report is a remarkably detailed document with over 300 footnotes. The civil servants who worked on it have done a remarkable job in difficult circumstances and it will probably turn out to be something of a slow-burning fuse.

One direct security element not covered by the report, and one that openDemocracy has pointed to, is the role of the security and intelligence agencies in the early detection of the threat. That may yet come in a subsequent report but the way these agencies are overseen it will be so full of redactions that little will become clear.

This is part of a wider problem: so much of the detail of government failings never gets into the public eye because of a persistent lack of interest by the mainstream media. The Guardian has got better at this, particularly in tracking the awarding of contracts and also Rupert Neate’s coverage of the huge boosts from COVID-19 for the super-rich, but otherwise it has been left to overseas papers such as The New York Times to go further.

Beyond that we are dependent on the likes of Double Down News, Byline Times , Declassified UK and openDemocracy for the wider picture, and they look like being even more vital sources of information in 2021 than this year.

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