Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

New year, new UK? Is 2023 going to be the year when the country finally starts to become more resilient?

“The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” defines personal resilience. National resilience, however, is about more than bouncing back. It includes assessing possible risks and increasing the preparedness to withstand, as well as recover from, crises.

The aftershocks of the pandemic are still being felt – a sort of ultra-Long Covid, perhaps. But a positive legacy of that particular national emergency is that it is forcing both Westminster and Whitehall to confront collective failure.

The Government was “underprepared” for a crisis that affected the whole of society, including the economy and essential public services, according to the National Audit Office. It called for the strengthening of national resilience better to deal with future events of such magnitude.

Days before Christmas, the UK Government Resilience Framework was unveiled. “Crises will have far-reaching consequences and are likely to be greater in frequency and scale in the next decade than we have been used to,” stated Oliver Dowden in the introduction. “We have a responsibility to prepare for this future.”

The Framework has three core principles, including whole-of-society involvement. Significantly: “There will be a shift away from simply dealing with the effects of emergencies towards a stronger focus on prevention and preparation for risks.”

And about time. The hush-hush National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA) and its mini-me public version, the National Risk Register (NRR), currently identify about 130 risks to Britain’s security. The most serious, Tier 1 threats include hostile attacks on British cyberspace and an international military crisis between states drawing in Britain and its allies.

The Civil Contingencies Secretariat, an off-shoot of the Cabinet Office, oversees the Government’s response to emergencies.

The possibility of extreme but real threats to the country are assessed – they can be malicious or non-malicious, for example – but not exaggerated. Giving evidence to the House of Lords’ Risk Assessment and Risk Planning select committee, the CCS boss put its role in context: “…This is not a scriptwriting meeting for a Hollywood disaster movie.”

Thanks to heavyweight members including Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, the risk committee’s report, Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society is thorough but pithy. “The pandemic has exposed the UK’s risk management system as deficient and too inflexible to provide the protection our nation needs”, it states.

With the July 2021 Integrated Review including a section on “Building Resilience at Home and Overseas” closely followed by call for evidence from the Cabinet Office for a National Resilience Strategy, it looks like the R-word might become policymakers’ latest buzz-word.

Cynics might wonder if “resilience” is going to be 2023’s “levelling up” or “climate emergency”, dutifully shoehorned into the most minor of policy documents issued by tiers of government from Whitehall down to parish council sub-committees.

But confronting the national resilience deficit is long overdue, and the Resilience Framework is welcome.

Among its commitments is a new UK Resilience Academy, a new Head of Resilience to strengthen accountability and transparency, an annual statement to Parliament on risk, as well as strengthening local resilience forums, which deal with emergencies at the grassroots.

The whole-of-society approach – identified in both the Integrated Review and the Resilience Framework – demands the public gets involved. We are as crucial to increasing national resilience as, say, those operating Critical National Infrastructure, such as nuclear power stations or the air traffic control system. This will surely involve a cultural shift, although this has been so far under-explored by policymakers.

While the Lords’ committee calls for an increased public “appetite” for risk, with their short-term mindset and hunger for popularity, elected politicians usually duck telling voters unpalatable truths. Rather than encourage energy saving and self-reliance, the unlamented Liz Truss regime was blithely set to hand out more than £100 billion, basically an open-ended furlough for fuel bills.

And if national resilience is to be strengthened, attitudes within risk-averse Whitehall, town halls, and the wider public sector must change. Tens of thousands of volunteers, including recently retired doctors and nurses, came forward with offers to help during pandemic, only to be blocked by NHS red tape. Boxes needed to be ticked.

With Covid, the blueprint drawn up to manage a pandemic was torn up. The NHS did not follow through on lessons learned during two large-scale pandemic simulations: Exercise Winter Willow (2007) and Exercise Cygnus (2016), according to the NAO.

Today, the Health Service is yet again overwhelmed and the public is being urged to “protect” it. Could the current crisis have been prevented by some planning for convalescent homes – perhaps temporarily using the hotels which are instead currently housing Albanian migrants?

In recent years, the Armed Forces are increasingly being deployed to plug the domestic resilience gap caused by short-term thinking and poor policy choices. Yet the Ministry of Defence is rarely the designated “lead department” when it comes to assessing and dealing with most of the 130 risks to the country.

Service personnel should not be relied upon to come to the aid of flood victims because of deliberately inadequate flood defences.

Lockdown reflects how Boris Johnson’s Government ignored all crisis planning and instead pressed the panic button. Back then, we were promised a V-shaped recovery: today, we are in a country where nothing seems to work.

If Rishi Sunak is serious about building back better, let’s begin to build some national resilience, which involves thinking long term. The Framework is a start.

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