FIRE’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the immediate lessons to be learnt from the outbreak of Covid-19.
It can be argued that it is never too early to take lessons from major crises. Often bureaucracy and process complicates the lessons learnt. Too often the time it takes to draw out lessons is well past the point that everyone has returned to their day jobs. It is rare for human beings to wish to spend their time looking backwards. Hope is ever eternal and draws people to quickly look to the future; often with a blinkered eye.
There is little doubt that the scale of the outbreak of Covid-19 has surprised many people. Notwithstanding the blatant cover-up by the Chinese authorities – in gross dereliction of their international duties as a result of their past behaviour during the SARS outbreak in 2003 – the initial political response was hesitant.
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) issues statements that suggest (wrongly) that the Chinese had the outbreak under control, it does create uncertainty. If one organisation needs to look itself in the mirror it is the WHO. It is clear they are far too trusting that everyone will play by the international rules-based system. Clearly some countries do not respect these principles and those in the west that believe everyone does are simply being naïve.
UK Resilience Planning
Resilience planning in the United Kingdom has recently been based around the Civil Contingencies Act. It formed a logical and structured approach to the kinds of challenges we face in the 21st century. This year has been specifically harsh. After the extreme floods came Covid-19. As the saying goes: “Things always come along in threes”. So, what comes next?
Looking at the National Risk Register it is possible to be drawn to a number of possible future events. The first and most obvious is a second outbreak of Covid-19. Worse still would be an equally virulent strain of flu starting quickly after the first outbreak appears to clear. A second look might suggest that with cyber-space being so active with new actors joining all the time that some kind of unintended or intentional black-out of electricity supplies. The two almost simultaneous events, including a lightening-strike against a wind farm in the North Sea, coupled with a malfunction at a gas plant, caused a significant outage in the United Kingdom. We have been warned. It could happen again.
The lesson to learn from this incident is a generic one: never operate consistently at a level that is close to the optimum required. Events will conspire to make the unexpected happen. For those planning flood responses in the country the lesson is important. Please cease all references to once in a 100-year flood. It now has to be the two-week flood. In the last winter that is how frequently the River Avon was moving with the River Seven and other major rivers across the United Kingdom.
The lesson also applies to the way in which reserve capacity is built into the emergency services and the National Health Service (NHS). Too often outbreaks of what is called “seasonal flu” have seen parts of the NHS on its knees. The death toll from ordinary flu is routinely absorbed into the daily routine of around 1,500 people a day dying in the United Kingdom.
Ordinary influenza has become normalised. It should not be. We need greater insights, more than ever, into why people die. Every death is at once both inevitable and tragic. But we need greater granularity on deaths so that we can spot the unusual early on. This helps build a resilient society.
In this regard Taiwan, who at the point of writing had only five deaths – despite being just over 100 miles by sea from mainland China – provides an excellent resilience model from which to learn. After the SARS outbreak in 2003 they put in place the means to detect Covid-19 and were the first people who tried to alert the WHO as to the seriousness of the outbreak. Their warnings were ignored by mainland China who thought they knew better.
This idea of operating with spare capacity goes against the grain of developments in western society. The approach of “just-in-time” may suit optimisation in manufacturing but it should not be the rule by which society at large operates. When it comes to human life such a process-based approach, with all its in-built inhumanity, is simply not appropriate. One of the core values of western civilisation is to value each human life.
This requires society to recognise, through its tax contribution for example, that building spare capacity into the system to account for unforeseen events is essential. Next time we have a pandemic, and there will be a next time, we should not be caught wondering where to buy personal protective equipment (PPE). And its regular replacement (which is an important lifetime cost) and updating (to reflect emerging threats) also needs to be considered. PPE is part of the national insurance policy we need to deal with epidemics, pandemics and the use of biological weapons by terrorists. It does not seem unreasonable that society needs to pay for this insurance policy of spare capacity. A suggestion that a figure of around ten to 15 per cent of the current expenditure does not seem unreasonable.
Exploiting the Pandemic
While no-one wants to think about ways in which terrorists will seek to exploit Covid-19 it is clear that the two main extremist groups, Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (IS), are thinking about just that point. Their narrative is clear. ‘We must create havoc at the point where the west is on its knees collectively to really hurt them’. Imagine 11 September occurring at this moment. How would the west cope in somewhere like New York?
While it may be the subject for some fiction writers and Hollywood producers, the practicalities of launching a bioweapon against the west is more difficult than can be readily imagined in the febrile mindset of a film writer. What is far more likely is that extremists will continue their course of using social media to maintain a low level of recruitment of vulnerable people who are prepared to die attacking a low-level target just to maintain the temp of attacks.
Meanwhile those who recruit people into terrorism will screen those who have that little bit extra in terms of an ability to plan and conduct a major attack. These can take time and require money raising activities. One attack that was prevented in Birmingham some years ago saw the 11 people involved take three years to independently raise the money to fund the attack.
On average it is possible to argue that the kind of multi-phase attacks, involving buying chemicals and hiring vans and places to build the bombs will costs several thousand pounds in contrast to those which also saw people travel overseas for training. These days, with social media offering classes to bomb makers on-line through discreet, dark-web channels, the need for overseas travel with associate costs has been reduced.
This still means that the average terrorist group needs a budget of around £10,000 to enable them to live, plan and build their weapons and conduct reconnaissance of the targets. While the figure selected can be argued about, it could be as low as a few £1,000. The point is it is not vast sums of money. But it can still take time to raise. IS was worth a great deal of money when it had its footprint in Syria. Today that estimate has been revised by US intelligence analysts to about $100 million. But that money is about keeping the group going in its strongholds. It limits their ability to target the west.
So it is reasonable to suggest that if someone had a plan that was ready to go and only had to be halted in the absence of mass-gatherings of people and had also managed to remain off the horizon of the intelligence services, they may be able to launch an attack from their current dormant state. As a planning contingency, something to be considered by local resilience forums, the possibility of an attack directed at a mass-gathering as we emerge from lock-down should be considered.
This is particularly important for the emergency services. For as they seek to recover to some kind of normal service, dealing with day-to-day incidents, a sudden multi-phased terrorist attack would provide a severe challenge at a point of maximum weakness. If any lesson needs to be learnt from this Covid-19 outbreak, it is that sudden and highly challenging shocks can emerge in this highly uncertain world. To some that might be blindingly obvious.
To others, such as political leaders who said years ago that things needed to be cut back, it is a message that needs to be driven home. Such ideological thinking has to be consigned to the waste bin. It is the right time to do it. As no-one should think a return to normal means going back to a society with fundamental weakness built into its resilience. Those days are over.