Political decisions impeded UK's pandemic preparedness, former National Security Adviser hints

25 October 2020, 15:14

By Seán Hickey

The former head of the Civil Service suggested that despite knowing the threat a pandemic posed to the UK, resources weren't made available by the Government to prepare the UK sufficiently.

"We've had to make choices in which contingency plans to make," Lord Mark Sedwill told Tom Swarbrick when quizzed on how the UK has responded to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

In an exclusive interview the former National Security Adviser told Swarbrick On Sunday that the National Security Council applied some of the recommendations of Exercise Cygnus, a war game carried out in 2016 which found Britain to be majorly underprepared for a potential pandemic.

In hindsight, Tom Swarbrick wondered if the National Security Council responded quickly enough or whether "the only thing that the NSC pushed out of that legislation."

Lord Sedwill insisted that all that his changes were made as they were seen fit at the time, although he noted that "increasing preparedness, increasing contingency capability requires investment and resources."

He added that "those are decisions made at each spending review," and are thus in the hands of politicians.

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Pointing out that the recommendations of the NSC were not carried out in their entirety, Tom prodded the former head of the Civil Service.

"You must have been tearing your hair out at the idea that this wasn't being invested in, or you were seeing things falling away despite the exercises that were undertaken."

Lord Sedwill insisted that "governments have to make resource choices, they have to prioritise and you can't simply say that one thing simply sits on top of a list and therefore it must have every single last penny it needs."

"You're always balancing a range of different risks off against each other."

He told Tom that policy makers have to consider "whole range of other issues, floods, other extreme weather events in which we have invest," and revealed "governments have to just make these judgements and balance these different risks."

Tom summarised Lord Sedwill's comments, concluding that the lack of provision for pandemic preparation in the UK was because of political decisions.