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House of Lords Hansard
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National Risk Register
04 June 2020
Volume 803

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of national preparedness to respond to the key risks identified in the National Risk Register and, in the light of the experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, what plans they have to produce a routine statement of preparations in response to each risk in the Register.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

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My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register, and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

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My Lords, the Government undertake regular reviews of our preparedness for the risks facing the United Kingdom. The national risk register outlines what is being done about the key risks and how the public can make themselves prepared for them. The latest version is being reviewed in the light of the Covid-19 response and will be published when that has been completed.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, but most risk registers explicitly show the actions taken to mitigate the risks alongside the risks themselves. None of this is easy because you can never eliminate risks, but it is reasonable that the public and Parliament should know what judgments the Government are taking to protect us so that we can judge whether the response is reasonable and proportionate. What have the Government got to hide in not publishing the actions being taken? If the concern is security, can those actions not be shared confidentially with the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy?

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My Lords, transparency is important but, as the noble Lord knows, the national security risk assessment is a document that has security implications. The national risk register itself has been published since, I believe, 2008. It was not published before. We publish a number of subsidiary documents that give guidance. We work through local resilience bodies and with stakeholders to deliver the capabilities sought in the register.

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My Lords, human disease pandemics are a registered risk. Since 2018, the Government have had a national Biological Security Strategy, which mentions human disease pandemics in its very first sentence. If the Minister has had an opportunity to read this strategy, he will know that its implementation is dependent on the work of the threats, hazards, resilience and contingency sub-committee of the National Security Council. Two years on, this ministerial sub-committee of the NSC does not exist, and it never has. In the absence of this committee, how has the strategy been implemented?

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My Lords, I am not commenting on the meetings of particular Cabinet committees. The noble Lord, who has a distinguished record in this area, needs to understand that very substantial planning was and is in place for dealing with pandemics. However, the public realise that Covid-19 is a novel virus that has presented different challenges. I am impressed by the remarkable resilience shown by so many people in this country, and by so many authorities, in responding to it.

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My Lords, diversity should not mean adversity. The Public Health England report of 2 June concluded that BAME communities are at a higher risk from Covid-19. How will the protection of ethnic minorities be prepared for in future in the national risk register?

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My Lords, I profoundly agree with my noble friend about the importance of these matters. The report from PHE is an important start but, as my colleagues in other responsible departments and the public health authorities have said, we need to build on it and go forward. That stage of work is being undertaken and I would underline the absolute commitment of the Government in this area.

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My Lords, the latest risk register, published in 2017, highlighted planning for a flu pandemic as one of the major risks faced by the country. It mentions measures taken to prepare with PPE and infection control protocols. Can my noble friend outline for me, or write to me on, how those protocols and PPE preparations were specifically targeted at the most vulnerable people in the country: those living in care homes or in the social care sector?

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On the detailed and very important point that my noble friend raises, we will provide her with the details that she asks for. The flu requirement for PPE is slightly different from that for Covid, which is different from flu in its symptoms and hospitalisation rate. My noble friend will understand that—but, again, I believe that the Government have made a determined and effective response.

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Since 2010, the resources of local government have decreased by 50% but their statutory obligations have not. Will the current review include an updated estimation of the capacity of local government to deal with Covid and other emergencies such as flooding or civil disorder, and will the Government publish that review?

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My Lords, the role of local authorities—I speak as an old hand—is absolutely fundamental and I agree with the noble Baroness on that. I thank them for what they have done. Their role remains fundamental and I assure her that it will be considered carefully going forward.

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My Lords, my noble friend has in effect experienced two civil emergencies this year: flooding and extreme weather, which we saw in the winter, and now the pandemic. There is a potential third civil emergency, which is a Brexit with no trade deal impacting on the flow of medicines into this country. As we have already seen supplies in short measure, owing to the fact that factory production in third countries has reduced, and with the potential for supply chains to firm up and be distorted after Brexit, what measures are the Government taking to ensure the supply of essential medicines in the event of no trade deal on 31 December this year?

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My Lords, the Government obviously take every action to secure security of supply chains. Without forecasting any outcome, I can assure the noble Baroness—I would be more optimistic than her—that it is a priority for the Government.

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My Lords, given that most major national crises, from foot and mouth, flooding, terrorist attacks and Olympic security to Covid-19, inevitably seem to require military support, especially in command, control and logistics, is now not the time to overhaul the procedures for military aid to the civil authorities and to reconsider relevant military capacity, so as to bring greater professionalism to the overall management of national resilience?

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My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord makes an important point. In responding to threats since 2016, we have drawn lessons about the involvement of the Armed Forces, as well as volunteers. I pay tribute to the extraordinary role of the Armed Forces in the current crisis and agree with much of what he said.

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My Lords, given that the outbreak of a pandemic has been top of the risk register since 2009, do we need not just a list of the mitigation required but the means to deliver that mitigation? We know that there were no standby contracts for the production of PPE or stockpiles of it. We also know that laboratories in the public, private and university sector had not been contacted to establish potential testing facilities. This would apply whatever the nature of the disease. From here on, will those contracts be put in place for any future pandemic?

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My Lords, the time for learning lessons, which is certainly ongoing, is also for the future. At the moment, the Government are concentrating every muscle and effort on protecting the people of this country against the virus and saving lives.

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What consideration of the risk register and preparedness plans is made in policy and financial decisions?

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My Lords, the NSRA and the risk register are continually reviewed and considered in meetings within government. They are an important informative, inside and outside government.

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My Lords, having reread the 2008 and 2017 editions of the national risk register and the subsidiary documents last night, I hope that my noble friend will not think me unkind when I say that the Government’s response to Covid-19 has been effective despite the register rather than because of it. Given that the level of deaths has sadly reached that which the risk register predicted for influenza, I cannot really believe that the measures suggested in the register would have been used. I suspect that they would more likely have been similar to what we have seen with Covid-19. Does he agree that the sections on both corona-type and influenza pandemics should be reassessed and rewritten, and that the rest of the register should be subject to rigorous and unrelenting questioning?

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My Lords, everything should be subject to rigorous and unrelenting questioning. I agree with my noble friend about updating; it so happens that the current iteration has been drafted and circulated for consideration. But, in the light of what my noble friend said, he will understand that that iteration will come after the full absorption of the lessons and experience of the Covid crisis. But I assure him that its publication will come as soon as possible, once those lessons have been absorbed.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I congratulate colleagues on the fact that we got through all 10 questions on this occasion. The third Oral Question is from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.