– in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 3rd February 2021.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce annual reporting to Parliament on the state of national preparedness for top-tier risks in the National Risk Register.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name.
My Lords, a range of documents has been published that provide an overview of preparedness for major risks, including the national risk register, which provides information on those that have the potential to cause significant disruption. The Government do not currently have plans to publicly share further reports on this matter due to the confidential nature of the information.
My Lords, of course there are some preparations that it would not be right to reveal publicly, but that is what the Intelligence and Security Committee is for. Covid has already cost us more than half a trillion pounds, but at the start of the pandemic, of the emergency stockpile of 26 million NHS respirators, 21 million were past their use-by dates. Neither the lessons from Exercise Cygnus, nor the recommendations from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, have been acted on. To govern is to choose, and the choice was to leave us underprepared. Is it not in the public interest for Parliament to know how ready we are for the other serious risks on the national risk register?
My Lords, I have said repeatedly at this Dispatch Box that lessons from Covid planning, and other planning, will be learned and are being learned, and will be communicated. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. He will know that the Government regularly respond to requests from that committee on risk assessment to inform its work, and they are currently responding to the recommendations in its report Biosecurity and National Security.
I congratulate the Government on their approach to maintaining the national risk register, but, following the recent severe flooding in Yorkshire and elsewhere, is my noble friend satisfied that there is adequate co-ordination between the national risk register and community risk registers in identifying and meeting such risks?
My noble friend touches on a very important point. In all candour, I think that one is never satisfied with anything; one always wishes to learn from what happens to do things better the next time. However, I assure him that, to support their planning for emergencies, local resilience forums are provided with full support to develop local resilience plans. They have direct contact with the Cabinet Office, should specific questions on risk assessment be raised—I assure the noble Lord that this ongoing dialogue is strong and will be strengthened.
Should the national risk register be about risks that are longer than two years and those over the next 10, 20 or 30 years? Also, the committee that was supposed to look into pandemics was closed down six months before the pandemic started: is that not a sign that perhaps we are a bit closed and not looking out in a real way to the great risks that face us now? Of course, the greatest risk is that of poverty.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a strong point with which I agree, having chaired one of your Lordships’ Select Committees that looked into longer-term planning. His point is important. The NSRA certainly takes into account the impact of risks on the most vulnerable in society in its methodology.
My Lords, emergency planners readily accept that the wider the input there is to a national risk register, the better it is, by its very definition. What plans have HMG to extend that input?
My Lords, as I say, the Government are in contact with a range of people. We have just discussed the issues of flooding and vulnerable groups, and, as I said in answer to the first supplementary question, the Government are obviously in contact with the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. We cast our interests and our ears—if you can cast your ears—widely.
My Lords, Professor Dame Sally Davies, the UK envoy on anti-microbial resistance, is calling on academics, Governments and not-for-profit organisations to work together to tackle this global health risk, which is a threat to both lives and economies. What action have the Government taken and what are their plans, following the recent update of the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, on his 2016 review on this issue?
My Lords, I do not have a detailed response to the O’Neill report, but I can make sure that the noble Baroness gets one. However, I assure her and the House that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has personally made clear his commitment to this Government being in the lead internationally in the fight against all manner of disease threats.
My Lords, the national risk register tries to identify both malicious and non-malicious threats, including misinformation. No one would ever suggest that President Macron’s recent rubbishing of the vaccination science was malicious, but it most certainly counts as misinformation that, unfortunately, plays into the hands and maliciousness of the anti-vaxxers. As such, might my noble friend, as an ardent European himself, be tempted later today to send Monsieur Macron this country’s very best wishes, gently remind him that the glorious state of France has nothing to fear from British success and suggest to him that the greatest danger facing all of us in this chaotic world is ignorance, to which the President has, sadly, unwittingly contributed?
With his normal ingenuity, my noble friend encourages me to make about five diplomatic gaffes in five seconds. I am certainly not going to fall into that trap. Those who advise best on disease and on the safety of vaccines are the professionals. The British Government have total confidence in the advice that they have received on vaccines.
My Lords, how do we know whether the £5 billion programme for flood relief is sufficient and proportionate to the flood risk? Should not Parliament be able to debate this and have input into it? The more minds involved, the better our preparedness will be.
My Lords, the lead government department concerned with flooding is the major one that should respond on that. Any debate on flood risk in your Lordships’ House would benefit not only the Government but the nation.
My Lords, the 2020 national risk register refers to planning to tackle Covid-19. It says that
“the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy covers strategic planning, response and scientific evidence for many emerging infectious diseases.”
Is not one of the lessons of the pandemic that the level of planning—for flu only—was totally inadequate? Is it not the case that there was simply no government planning for a coronavirus pandemic?
The noble Lord may understand that Covid was a novel virus that emerged. He under- estimates the importance of the pandemic planning work. The NSRA was a vital starting point for the Covid-19 response. We have discussed that in a number of ways, but there is no doubt that the fast preparation of the Coronavirus Act was the result of effective planning for a pandemic.
My Lords, one of the great successes of the vaccine programme has been bringing our level of manufacturing capability back onshore. Do the Government have similar plans for generic medicines, microelectronics and power generation equipment? All these sectors are vulnerable should, say, China choose to go to war with Taiwan.
My noble friend raises an important point. Again, I am not going to write an industrial strategy from this Dispatch Box any more than I am a diplomatic policy. We have seen the value of the co-ordinated response to Covid. The creation of a national capacity has been greatly to our benefit. I am sure that his comments will be widely noted.
Having a good risk register is not the same as having a good system of risk management. Despite pandemic being mentioned as a significant risk in the national risk register, why did the Government’s response to Covid not follow the department of health’s approved contingency plans for dealing with a SARS-type outbreak?
My Lords, as I said before, in my judgment—and in that of the Government—it is too early to draw all the lessons from the Covid emergency. Some tend to underestimate its novelty and gravity. This Government and all Governments in the world have sought to respond in the best interests of their peoples. We have drawn on the lessons from the pandemic review, as will be seen when any examination or inquiry takes place.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.