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UK security services face some awkward questions when the pandemic is over

The government knew that pandemics were a major threat – and that the NHS was not ready to handle one. So why have MI6 and GCHQ failed to do their job?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 March 2020
Tragicomic
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Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street/Xinhua. All rights reserved.

In a scathing critique of Boris Johnson, Jenni Russell wrote in The New York Times last week of the UK’s need for a real leader, not a joker. She writes that Johnson has spent decades preparing for his lead role but:

The problem is that he has been preparing for the wrong part. The man came to power playing Falstaff, a double-dealing, comically entertaining, shameless rogue; now he is suddenly onstage as Henry V, the wartime king whose solemn judgement, intense focus, charisma and conviction must lead his nation in a time of crisis. Mr Johnson does not know how to play that part and it shows. This is not a rehearsal. His careless, inexcusable reluctance to track and halt the virus earlier will have cost lives.

The failures in the British response to the pandemic go deeper than the prime minister’s personal flaws, however. They are rooted in an entrenched misunderstanding of international security, defence and the role of intelligence and security services, as well as wider issues of political culture.

The new investigative reporting organisation, Declassified UK, which I advise, has in the past month published a series of hugely informed analyses of some of these failures. Only last week Nafeez Ahmed pointed out that six years ago the UK Cabinet Office’s National Risk Register for Civil Emergencies warned that “a global disease outbreak was likely within five years. Despite that, the government’s subsequent pandemic planning remained unfit for purpose. That very year, the UK’s Centre for Health and the Public Interest, a public health think-tank, warned that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) was unprepared for the impact of such a pandemic.”

In a further Declassified UK report, Matt Kennard writes that there is little if any evidence that MI5 or MI6 have taken the risk of a pandemic seriously, even though the heads of these security services in recent years have tended to make public statements about their priorities. This lack of concern is striking, given that the government’s own National Risk Register for Civil Emergencies noted in 2017 that “consequences… for pandemic flu [may include] up to 50% of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work”.

What makes this even more concerning is that within the depths of government some sensible thinking actually was done, advocating exactly what policies should have been followed in the global crisis that began to unfold in China at the end of last year. In August 2018 the government published the UK Biological Security Strategy, which emphasised the need to respond to the spread of serious diseases. The strategy is a good example of science-based planning and highlighted the importance of strong public communications as part of swift action in the event of a crisis. Just two extracts illustrate how the government has failed to act quickly when it was vitally important to do so.

First:

The UK is globally renowned for the quality of our preparedness planning, and we have world-leading capabilities to address significant biological risks. Across local and national Government and the Devolved Administrations, and through our work internationally, the UK invests hundreds of millions of pounds a year in protecting against and preparing for disease outbreaks and biological incidents.

Why, then, has the government throughout this crisis given the impression that it is making up policy as it goes along?

Second:

We have effective and well-developed systems for gathering information on current and emerging biological hazards and threats, bringing this together so that it can be assessed by experts and then feeding the results of this work into our policy making, planning assumptions, and science and technology activity.

In which case why on earth did it take so long to recognise and act on the severity of this threat?

One helpful answer is to look at the sequence of events around the turn of the year, given that the first indications of a serious problem in China were already visible in late December. The Economist reports that Taiwan started testing people arriving from Wuhan before the end of the month.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was on a ten-day holiday in the Caribbean, not returning to the UK until 6 January. Many senior members of his cabinet also took time off, with junior ministers left to watch out for problems.

By 23 January, there had been 26 deaths and 870 people confirmed with the virus in China, and the rate of spread was accelerating by the day. Cases were already being reported in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the US, and health officials in the UK reported that fourteen people were being tested for the virus.

Only on 24 January was there a first meeting of the government’s COBRA emergency committee but, extraordinarily, Johnson did not attend. Eventually, over the following month, some action was taken – invariably after the situation in other European states, especially Italy, had demonstrated all too clearly what was ahead. So it has been right up to late March: only in the past ten days has action been taken that is even remotely commensurate with the requirements existing at least three weeks earlier.

We must hope that it will be possible to limit the loss of life and suffering that lies ahead in the coming months, not just in the UK but right across the world. For the UK, however, there will then be many awkward questions to be asked.

One should be addressed to the security services, especially MI6 and GCHQ. Early in January, when the crisis in China was clear, was MI6 monitoring it, not least through its assets in China, and was GCHQ collecting data from its own signals intelligence? Were MI6 and GCHQ reporting to the government that Taiwan was already testing people from Wuhan back in December? If not, why not, given the importance of this kind of risk as noted in the Biological Security Strategy? If so, was it passed on to appropriate ministries and why did they not act? Perhaps most important, when was such information passed on to the Joint Intelligence Staff in the Cabinet Office?

Beyond these, how can one explain the laid-back style of government in those early days that has proved to be so devastating? Was it partly the self-congratulatory mood in government with its recent election victory? Was it Johnson’s character as leader or was it the dangerous preoccupation with Brexit?

Perhaps most important of all, were these failings partly down to the style of political culture that has taken root in so many countries across the world in the forty years of the neo-liberal era, an element explored in the Oxford Research Group’s new briefing ‘Austerity in the Age of COVID-19: A Match made in Hell?

Whatever is learned, two things stand out. One is that concern with biological agents should be far higher up the political agenda, not just because of the risk of pandemics but also because we are moving into the era of genetic manipulation for military purposes. Since 1972 there has been a world-wide ban on biological and toxin weapons, but it is one of the weakest of all the arms control agreements of the past sixty years. A hard-headed strengthening of that convention should be one of the most urgent items on the international security agenda.

Finally, if and when we do come through this global crisis it must be recognised that doing so must be a dress rehearsal for the even bigger global threat of climate breakdown. If governments and the wider international community can learn to work closely and successfully together on controlling COVID-19, it could serve as a vitally important guide to this even greater challenge.

Trade deals, Brexit and disaster capitalism

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Nick Dearden Director of Global Justice Now and author of 'Trade Secrets: The Truth about the US Trade Deal and How We Can Stop It'

Caroline Molloy Editor of openDemocracyUK and ourNHS

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