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  • Writer's pictureCrone


I wrote this in May and added to it in early June... I don't know why I've held onto it... Well, I do: I hoped that it would be 'out there'. But, despite some interest from an agency, it remains my little solitary idea.

The course of the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom has brought to the fore some of the problems inherent in our traditional ways of handling risk and probabilistic future threats.

Preparedness for risk is never more apparent than in retrospect, after the danger has already intruded itself on our consciousness. In the stages when it remains a risk rather than a reality, preparedness is dependent on various factors: notably information-gathering, critical and judicious assessment, authoritative decision-making and financial outlay.

For the next few years, we will be analysing where we failed and where we succeeded. But before this happened, we knew that the likelihood of such an event was possible, indeed, probable. Although the United Kingdom, according to global indices, was well-prepared in comparison with other nations, there were clear gaps both in the provision of essential supplies and in firm guidance to assist strong and effective leadership during the early stages of the outbreak. Both failings will impact the severity of the adverse health effects, the final mortality rates and the economic burden. Such oversights are to a significant extent preventable, even accepting the practical impossibility of predicting precisely how a major threat will play out.

It is likely that after this pandemic there will be increased calls to be prepared for the next pandemic, which is no doubt a good thing. But this in no way resolves the problem. The next substantial risk we actually face could be not a pandemic but data theft, climate related events, terrorism, failure of trade partners, biohazards, nuclear war between other states and so on. The world’s dangers are only probabilistically predictable and the likelihood of being ahead of the wave on any one of them, given our current political system, appears poor to fair at best.

It is not good enough to claim that the current practice is the way things are and politicians will learn to do better under the existing system. First, politicians are to some extent stymied by the constitutional organisation of our political system and secondly, as Margaret Heffernan has brought into the public discourse recently and Carol Taveris and the like have been stating for decades, cognitive biases, wilful blindness and the re-writing of history ensure that lessons are seldom learned as comprehensively as one might like.

A pertinent example: during the course of previous epidemics - SARS, MERS and Ebola – finance from various bodies for the appropriate scientific research was ramped up. However, once the danger receded, that finance was cut, fewer researchers were trained to the highest level and labs were limited in the breadth and depth of their ongoing research. Consequently, once Covid-19 came to the foreground, scientists have been limited in their capacity, space and number of experienced researchers. The scientific community has created an Open Science system and ensured global collaboration; used crowd-funding and crowd-collaboration (see COVID Moonshot) and dedicated laboratory space, facilities, funding and staff to the cause. It would be disastrous should such intensity of labour be fully scaled down post-pandemic. Oxford University’s Professor of Virology and Director of the Glycobiology Institute, Nicole Zitzman explained in a University of Oxford COVID Conversation video (21 May 2020) that coronaviruses have three times in recent years jumped from animals to humans with the time between such mutations shrinking. Any plans for the future demand the continuation of research so that at the next outbreak the scientific community is better placed, rather than continually having to reinvent the wheel. Fortunately, the University of Oxford is planning to establish a centre for pandemic preparedness – and government money will be requited to make that as effective and wide-ranging as possible.

That said, of course, another pandemic is just one of the probable risks that lie ahead.

As Heffernan states strongly in her work on building for growth, those with power and those with ideas need to collaborate in order to determine a better future. The old ways are seldom the best and change can revitalise more than it threatens.

In the short term (i.e. five-year term) of an elected government, with their inevitable consideration of poll ratings and account balances, it is easy to see how financial outlay on risks that remain only possible future outcomes could appear unattractive. However, there is a powerful case to be made for the savings inherent in preparedness. If the taxpayers’ money is spent in advance of a crisis to prepare the nation for risk, emergency expenditure will be less extensive. Over the long-term, preparation confers a saving to the state. Early intervention, and appropriate action, has proven long-term overall savings benefits.

Consider a relevant, though different, example: the Norwegian prison system. This costs more to run than comparable systems, but leads to extensive savings long-term, through cutting health, police and judicial expenditure over a longer time period (see World Economic Forum report - Likewise, the cost of supporting the young children of deprived families has also been shown to bring long-term financial savings (see Thomas Powell’s briefing paper on Early Intervention, Number 7647, 11 July 2019).

Such results would also be seen in the case of risk management. It just demands a change from the current mindset which, as the National Audit Office wrote in a report titled Improving government’s planning and spending framework, dated 26 November 2018, values short-termism: ‘HM Treasury’s own success measures prioritise spending control over long-term value for money.’

That final clause, ‘long-term value for money’, is critical. The nation’s success and flourishing is not a five-year project; it is a long-term plan. No citizen wants her future, nor that of her children, to be an irrelevance in political decision-making.

Further, business is attracted to safe, secure and stable nations. A country which has considered possible risks and taken action to secure the future against possible devastating eventualities, is a far more attractive option for industry and commerce, as well as the service and financial sector. Consequently, a transparent and professional approach to risk preparedness is likely to enhance the commercial future of the nation.

The ethical value of such action cannot be discounted. A state bears responsibility not just for the present flourishing of its citizens but also for putting in place foundations to secure continued flourishing. This responsibility entails the necessity of looking beyond present concerns to realistic probable threats. As the philosopher John Dewey wrote:

All action is an invasion of the future, of the unknown. Conflict and uncertainty are ultimate traits. But morals based upon concern with facts and deriving guidance from knowledge of them would at least locate the points of effective endeavor and would focus available resources upon them.[1]

As this crisis has sharpened the focus of governments and citizens alike, the opportunity to put in place new safeguards presents itself to us.

In light of that, a proposal is outlined here.

An independent agency that assessed risks and had the authority to offer strong recommendations to Parliament would act as a barrier between society and social breakdown in the face of an emergency, while also protecting both the welfare of citizens and the economic structures on which they depend.

The model for such an agency already exists, consider the status of an Ombudsman or the Central Bank. Consequently, the framework is an evolution rather than a revolution of existing practice, and in that regard should not be seen as an extreme reaction, but as a practical solution.

This agency would need to be accountable, as transparent as possible and fully independent. It would be established to generate maximum trust. It is vital that the public should believe in its objectivity and have faith in the decision-making process it acts upon. The work of sociologists like Peter Thisted Dinesen at the University of Copenhagen suggests that the careful establishment of social institutions can enhance levels of trust within a nation. To have such an agency safeguarding the future of citizens and their children could well pay notable dividends in the positive regard with which the public hold the state, and thus the likelihood of the agency’s recommendations being greeted positively.

Will Davies has suggested in Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World (Penguin, 2018) that medical professionals can act as a bridge between the felt reality of life and the scientific, economic and political institutions of the state. This independent agency, established to secure the future well-being of citizens, would seek to bridge the same divide.

As the role of the agency would be to safeguard the nation’s future in the face of probable risks to health and security, it should be presented as such. It would be there to act as a long-term check and balance for the inevitably shorter-term and immediate concerns of the UK government. While such threats tend to operate on a global scale, and while an international body would have greater efficacy in all crises, this agency could justifiably claim to have at its core the well-being of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the same way that the NHS is rightly regarded as the custodian of the nation’s present health concerns, this agency should be seen as the custodian of the nation’s future welfare.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, the public appear to regard a greater concern for risk as a favourable development. This agency would be a concrete fulfilment of their appropriate demands.

Establishing the agency with consideration of the factors that would make it trustworthy and generate public buy-in is a key consideration.

To this end, the agency must:

1) Represent all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There must be a member of the panel from each region.

2) Be chaired by an individual selected by a board that crosses party lines.

3) Have a panel with a five-year term that crosses over the electoral cycle – thus ensuring it works alongside successive governments and is not hamstrung by the electoral timescale.

4) Hear from a wide range of experts in all domains of existential risk. These would not be on staff, but would be paid a set-fee for the preparation of material and the presentation of that material at the regular meetings.

5) I would suggest that having the Queen’s mandate would confer additional trust.

There needs to be as much transparency as possible, given that some material would be sensitive. So:

1) The members of the panel will be named in the public domain.

2) Some security clearance should be extended, as in the USA, to selected academics, in order to confer an additional level of openness in cases of sensitivity.

3) As much as is possible, in line with state security, the decisions of the panel should be reported publicly.

4) Meetings should be held on a regular basis – quarterly, perhaps – unless a new risk comes to the fore which has not been addressed or a risk escalates more rapidly than had been predicted.

5) The subject matter for each meeting should be dictated by the most recent and reliable risk assessment data taken from not just one but several independent agencies.

6) The agency staff, assisted by data management systems, would maintain open communication links with the public and journalists.

The agency must be seen to have teeth, therefore:

1) It could offer recommendations to Parliament in varying degrees of strength.

2) If the UK government did not follow a strong recommendation, the agency could publicly respond to that failure.

3) Although independent, a certain level of government connection would be advantageous – consequently, the panel requires some members who understand the political system and can operate effectively in that domain, while still being outside the parliamentary structure.

As already mentioned, threats tend to be global rather than regional. For this reason, the agency should be globally connected. It would be ideal if all states had such an agency, but whether or not that were the case, this agency must be free to communicate with the relevant bodies in other states. In the same way that scientists globally have been cooperating through the pandemic, so this agency should be able to receive and share information and evidence with those facing the same global risks in various nations. This said, the public would also require assurance that no material sensitive to the state would be disseminated.

There could be some resistance to such a proposal, perhaps firstly and most cogently with the claim that it would be undemocratic. However, it is worth noting, as stated above, that the structure of this agency is not new. Further, the high standards of trust-generation instituted in its format should protect it from most criticisms. Finally, as recommendations would have to go through parliament, there are substantive democratic checks and balances in place.

Nonetheless, it would be worth considering in the light of a public mood in which increasing numbers of the population feel distanced from political power and agency (consider the research included in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin's National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy) whether some aspects of direct democracy could be included in its institutionalisation. Or indeed whether it would be preferable were it to be based outside London.

States tend to be averse to radical transformation. Yet this proposal, while offering transformative benefits, remains firmly rooted in the existing values and structural precedents of the liberal democratic worldview. Holding on tightly to the status quo is, in a rapidly changing world, to go backwards. As scientific and technical knowledge has accelerated, states are more aware of potential hazards. It is imperative that we develop the wisdom and capacity to act on this knowledge in a proactive rather than reactive fashion.

The political and public mood post-pandemic would be receptive – as this is the precise structure that would have at its heart the protection of the populace, and so, the institutions and services that we have come to value more than ever: the NHS, social welfare, access to education, supply lines, communication systems and the like. It would also offer a profound level of protection against the breakdown of our more abstract, but no less crucial, goods: law, economic security, democracy and freedom.

It is also worth noting that a scan through the Financial Times demonstrates that previously left-field ideas (such as a wealth tax or Universal Basic Income) are now being considered anew, with a fresh perspective, as realistic and workable proposals to navigate the economy into a better, less unequal, future. The Overton window has opened – but it can be as open as we want to no avail if we do not go through it and enter the new vistas currently before us. To misquote and reinterpret Shakespeare, there is a tide, which taken at the flood, could lead, not to an empire’s collapse, but to a nation’s better chance at greatness.

Finally, though well-prepared and effective in many ways, the United Kingdom has not been a global leader in handling this pandemic. There may have been failures in leadership, but the systemic failure is more problematic. What we are offered now is the chance to adequately address this. Indeed, there is no responsibility more potent today than to ensure that we will do better next time. This is of paramount and immediate concern, for we do not know how soon the next crisis will appear.

We can be world leaders in effecting a means to ensure a better future. We can come out of this with our heads held high if we admit to mistakes and take real rather than cosmetic action to prevent a recurrence.

[1] Dewey, J. (1922). Human nature and conduct: An introduction to social psychology. New York: Henry Holt. Dewey. p. 11-12

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