UK unprepared for variety of 'grave risks', says former Nato chief

Government must be able to deal with 'not just the enemy at the gate, but the enemy on the horizon', says peer

Lord George Robertson, who served as Nato chief from 1999-2003, sat on a Lords select committee looking at building up the UK’s resilience. PA
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It is “alarming” how unprepared the UK is for a variety of “grave risks”, a former Nato chief has said.

After vulnerabilities were exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, who served as Nato chief from 1999-2003, sat on a Lords select committee looking at building up the UK’s resilience.

The risks include climate change, a severe space weather event, another pandemic, nuclear or chemical warfare, the failure of critical infrastructure, malicious deployment of or the collapse of technology, and many others.

“This special committee was a true eye-opener for all of us — to see, and to see in some detail, just how ill-prepared our country and our people are for the kind of grave risks that are prevalent in today’s very dangerous and increasingly dangerous world was itself alarming, to say the least,” said Lord Robertson.

The Labour peer, who served as defence secretary in Tony Blair’s first government, admitted that this lack of preparedness was not the fault of any one political party.

“Not all the deficiencies are to do with the last 12 years and some of us who held government positions in relation to risk management must share at least some of the blame for historic vulnerabilities,” he said.

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Lord Robertson then explained some of the main issues identified in the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee’s report entitled Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society.

A key issue, he said, was the “overbearing and unjustified level of secrecy in the whole process”, as well as “a lack of external challenge to internal government thinking”.

However, in a note of optimism, the former minister said the government’s new resilience framework seeks to address these issues and has accepted all but two of the committee’s recommendations.

“The new resilience framework begins to show that, however belatedly, ministers have woken up to the nation’s vulnerabilities and are seeking to remedy them, and mainly in the ways that we actually proposed,” he said.

“Better late than another grave disaster.”

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However, Lord Robertson warned that the framework should be enacted as quickly as possible.

“The experience of Covid-19 has shone a bright light on the way we look at the grave risks to this country’s safety and its security,” he said.

“And if we’re to avoid the kind of cascading damage that we’ve seen over the last two years, then we need more than fine words in a little notice framework document — we need to see its provisions put into effect and put into effect quickly.”

Responding, Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe told peers government work was being undertaken, including the appointment of a new head of resilience, a pledge made in the framework.

Pressed on this by Labour, she confirmed this to be the case and added: “I always like to be the bearer of good news from the despatch box.

“Building resilience is a truly whole of society and national endeavour.

“We are determined to work together to be better prepared for the challenges we face.”

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The chairman of the committee, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, said the chaotic reaction to Covid had exposed “a lack of preparedness that can only be described as complacency”.

The former Tory MP branded the risk management system “secretive, opaque and centralised”, with devolved administrations excluded and a lack of external challenge.

He added that it took “little account” for cascading risk, or for events considered unlikely, even those with devastating consequences, due to the short-term thinking in government.

Lord Arbuthnot urged ministers to deal with “not just the enemy at the gate, but the enemy on the horizon”.

The Tory peer concluded that the solution requires “flexibility, agility and diversity”.

Several peers also noted that a more joined-up approach is needed, with an aim to build general resilience, rather than prepare for discrete disasters.

Updated: January 12, 2023, 11:09 PM