Cabinet Office leads a review into UK’s resilience

By on 19/05/2021
Alex Chisholm, head of the UK civil service, told MPs that a review of national resilience is underway. Credit: Wikimedia

A review of national resilience — designed to help the UK government learn lessons from its preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic — is underway, the chief operating officer of the UK civil service told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

Alex Chisholm, who is also permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, appeared before UK’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for a session about the department’s role in response to the pandemic.

Chisholm said that he anticipates a “resetting of the dial in terms of how much we prepare for low-probability, high-impact events [like COVID-19].”

Meanwhile Sarah Harrison, chief operating officer at the Cabinet Office, said the department has implemented more than half of the recommendations made in a review of its pandemic procurement processes, but stressed that no conflicts of interest had been identified.

Be prepared

MPs questioned Chisholm on why the government had engaged in limited planning for economic disruption caused by a potential pandemic prior to COVID-19. For example, Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 planning operation delivered by Public Health England, involved economic departments but did not substantially focus on the economy.

Chisholm defended that exercise. “It would have needed to have predicted that we had an infectious and asymptomatic coronavirus requiring a lockdown, which would have been, I  suspect, a far-fetched scenario at that time,” he said.

But Chisholm said that the UK’s national security adviser, Sir Stephen Lovegrove, is leading a review into the UK’s resilience, working with devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This review is “already underway”, Chisholm noted, and “we will be drawing lessons from that”. “We don’t need to wait entirely for the independent inquiry” into the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, he said.

“I’m sure one of the things that we will conclude is that we need to have a higher level of resilience right across the system,” Chisholm said. “I’m sure that there will be a resetting of the dial in terms of how much we prepare for low-probability, high-impact events.”

Conflicts of interest

The two officials were also questioned about the Cabinet Office’s procurement practices. In December, the UK government published the findings of a review by the lawyer Nigel Boardman, making recommendations based on how the Cabinet Office had handled the awarding of two communications contracts during the pandemic.

Following the report’s publication, Harrison released a statement saying the Cabinet Office would implement the 28 recommendations made as part of Boardman’s review. These focus on improving procurement processes and the way in which government manages conflicts of interest.

Harrison told MPs on Tuesday that the recommendations “acknowledge that the policies and the practices and the processes existed, but what we needed to do was take some further action across the Cabinet Office to strengthen the way in which those were applied.”

She said that 19 of the 28 recommendations have been completed, with a further five to be finished by the end of the month. Harrison also told the committee that no other contracts have been identified that raise conflict of interest concerns.

Elsewhere, the government is in the High Court this week facing a judicial review over the contracts awarded for personal protective equipment (PPE). The case, brought by campaigning body the Good Law Project, alleges the contracts were awarded without due process. On Tuesday, the prosecution highlighted links between the successful companies and ministers and officials.

The case is ongoing and the government is defending the claim.

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