UK government risk register sets out 89 serious threats to national security and safety

By on 06/08/2023 | Updated on 04/08/2023
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The UK has set out the top threats the country faces, as part of what a senior civil servant said was an effort to provide a “comprehensive understanding of the risks” the government is tackling. 

The new National Risk Register has named 89 specific risks including disruption to energy supplies, malicious uses of drones to disrupt transport and other critical operations, and threats to undersea transatlantic telecommunications cables used for internet and communications.

The updated register, which was last revised in 2020, also highlighted a number of chronic risks around climate change, antimicrobial resistance, serious and organised crime, and artificial intelligence systems.

The government said it had “robust plans in place for each of the different risks”, and deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden urged businesses, local government and voluntary groups to play their part in helping plan for them. The government has meanwhile developed an online digital tool to make it easier for citizens to understand the details of risks the UK faces.

“This is the most comprehensive risk assessment we’ve ever published, so that government and our partners can put robust plans in place and be ready for anything,” Dowden said.

In particular, he highlighted rising risks around energy security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Dowden launched the report on a visit to the world’s largest offshore windfarm at Able Seaton Port in Hartlepool.

The UK’s deputy national security advisor, Matt Collins, said that “a comprehensive understanding of the risks we face is critical to keeping the UK safe”. 

He added: “This edition of the NRR, based on the government’s internal, classified risk assessment offers even more detail on the potential scenarios, response and recovery options relating to the risks facing the UK; ranging from terrorism to conflicts and natural disasters.”

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Terrorist attacks among most likely risks

Risks were identified by consulting across government departments and devolved administrations, as well as academic institutions and industry. The risk register assesses each risk based on the potential impact – assessed from minor to catastrophic – and likelihood, rated across five possibilities from less than 0.2% to greater than 25%.

Five risks are described as potentially having catastrophic impact, meaning there would be more than 1,000 fatalities, more than 2,000 casualties, or an economic cost of tens of billions. A pandemic is deemed the most likely of these catastrophic risks, with a likelihood of between 5-25% in the assessment period, judged as five years.

The other catastrophic risks identified in the report are a large scale chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attack, failure of the national electricity transmission system, both rated as a 1-5% likelihood, and a civil nuclear accident or radiation release from overseas nuclear site, both deemed to have a likelihood of under 0.2%.

The register names eight risks with a likelihood of more than 25% for the assessment period of the report, defined as two years for malicious risks or five years for non-malicious risks.

None of these risks are judged to have either catastrophic or significant impact. Four risks are judged to have a potential moderate impact: terrorist attacks in venues and public spaces, technological failure at a UK critical financial market infrastructure, disaster response in overseas territories, and an attack on a UK ally or partner requiring international assurance.

Two events with a likelihood of 25% or more would have a limited impact – Northern Ireland-related terrorism and the possible assassination of a high-profile public figure – while those with a minor impact are an international terrorist attack or a major outbreak of the Xylella fastidiosa plant pest.

Read more: Expect the unexpected: the lessons from COVID about public health and preparedness

Climate change and AI among chronic risks

As well as analysis of specific acute threats, the report also highlighted four chronic risks that “pose continuous challenges” to the country over a longer time frame, as well as exacerbating individual risks.

The four highlighted in the report are climate change, antimicrobial resistance, serious and organised crime and artificial intelligence systems and their capabilities.

On climate change, the register stated that the impact of climate change on the intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extreme events is already being observed globally, and these impacts will worsen in the future.

Antimicrobial resistance, which is when viruses and other infections evolve in a way that makes them less treatable, is estimated in the risk register to already cause almost 1.3 million deaths globally, and 7,600 deaths in the UK. The UK government has an action plan to tackle resistance, including reducing the need for, and unintentional exposure to, antimicrobials; optimising the use of existing antimicrobials; and investing in innovation, supply and access to new treatments.

Serious and organised crime has been named as a specific risk in the 2020 risk register, but has now been redefined as a chronic risk to the UK as it “persistently erodes the resilience of the UK’s economy and communities, impacting on citizens, public services, businesses, institutions, national reputation and infrastructure”, the report said.

On artificial intelligence, the risk register says that they systems present many opportunities, but there also “a range of potential risks and there is uncertainty about its transformative impact”. The review highlighted that the UK government has committed to hosting the first global summit on AI safety, and the government has committed to establishing a central risk function that will identify and monitor risks from AI.

“By addressing these risks effectively, we will be better placed to utilize the advantages of AI,” it concluded.

The register also sets out preparedness advice for individuals and communities, setting out steps to understand the risks, take steps to prepare, know how to responds, and help with recovery.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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