Susan Scholefield, CMG
Visiting Professor, Department of Politics, University of Surrey
On 10th May, the Prime Minister announced his “routemap” for recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. This will be the product of intense discussions to balance complex risk assessments; to assess scientific advice and evidence; and to strengthen health, social and economic resilience at local, regional, national and, indeed, global levels.
To explore the issues and difficult judgments to be made, I joined a discussion, chaired by Nick Robinson, with former Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell, Professor Peter Openshaw of NERVTAG (the Government’s advisory body on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats) and former Treasury Permanent Secretary Lord Nicholas Macpherson. An edited version was broadcast during BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
We all agreed that Covid-19 has exposed both obvious and less obvious vulnerabilities in the way we have been living in the UK as part of a “globalised” world. Difficult choices now face us all. The future economic and social landscape could look rather different if it is to be more resilient.
Our discussion focused on what this meant in practical terms.
What should we do differently now and in future as the UK; as England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; in cities, towns and villages; in our businesses, homes and as individuals; and at the other end of the scale, how should we act together with other nations, bilaterally and multilaterally? What should we do in the short, medium and long term to get there? Do we all need to do the same thing(s) in the same way and at the same time?
As a former head of UK emergency planning in the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, I argued some strategic decisions must apply everywhere, but more often, one size does not fit all. What works well in one part of the country (eg a rural village) might be a disaster in central London and vice versa. Local circumstances are important – people in town X may still be recovering from flooding and having to cope with Covid-19 at the same time.
Elsewhere there might be water shortages. So central Government needs to listen carefully to current regional and local experience – and learn lessons from what we and other countries have got right and wrong managing both this and earlier crises. After extensive consultations following fuel, flooding and foot and mouth crises and particularly the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, the UK’s Civil Contingencies Act 2004 set out frameworks for decision making in a wide range of circumstances and the key capabilities we would need to be able to respond to and recover from crises, however caused.
I argued that we should not try to re-invent the wheel, but should follow these frameworks, methods and plans to recover from Covid-19 and to build a more resilient society for the future.
We all agreed that a more resilient future social and economic landscape could emerge from the current Covid-19 crisis. It could look rather different from what we have experienced over the last 15 to 20 years, not only in the UK but also abroad.