John Gittings

Weighing the Risk -- Pandemic v. the Bomb

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The British government's risk assessment has for many years placed pandemics at the top of the list, but preparations have been starved of funds. Nuclear "defence" is never subject to the same risk assessment and yet consumes a vast budget year on year.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue of risks and their avoidance right into the foreground, but it is with us all the time. We calculate risk in our daily lives, often without knowing that we are doing so. We expect risk assessments to be made in the work place, on public transport, in stadiums and in theatres. And all the more do we expect our government to weigh up the possible risks facing us as a community whether from natural or human-made causes. Sometimes a risk may be taken if it is outweighed by a high priority, but this has to be calculated intelligently, and we need to know what calculations are being made on our behalf.

So when in 2008 the Labour government decided to publish its National Risk Register, previously a confidential document, that was a good step forward. The principle behind it and subsequent reviews was to "assess the impact and likelihood of the major risks, both hazards and threats, that the country could face over a five year period, enabling prioritisation of the UK's planning for emergencies." Today we may note ruefully that in its assessment of "the high consequence risks facing the United Kingdom", it already placed "pandemic influenza" at the top of the table. However the review was not confined to natural threats such as epidemics or extreme weather. Civil emergencies were defined in an Act of 2004 to include acts of war, as well as terrorism, "which threaten serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom." These come under the heading of "malicious attacks", and in the 2008 section under this heading, the Register made a significant assessment. One could not rule out a terrorist attempt to obtain nuclear substances to use against the UK. But as far as hostile state action was concerned, the assessment was that "for the foreseeable future, no state or alliance will have both the intent and capability to threaten the UK militarily."

From 2008 to 2017 a new edition of the Register appeared every two years, and the general picture given by it was unchanged. Indeed, the 2017 edition significantly raised its assessment of the danger of epidemic disease. Top of its list of increasing risks was that of "emerging infectious diseases". These were "unpredictable but evidence indicates [they] may become more frequent". Under the "malicious attack" heading, the danger of terrorists obtaining nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological devices was rated medium to low.

What about the military/nuclear threat from a state actor? From the 2012 Register onwards, such a threat has not been mentioned at all. Its consideration appears to have been removed from the exercise even though it comes under the definition of a "civil emergency". It is not hard to see why. Military planners do not want any argument about the likelihood of such a threat to be considered elsewhere, not least because it might lead to the conclusion that the threat is very low. So the risk of a nuclear attack, which in their eyes justifies Britain remaining a nuclear power, is reserved for an entirely separate exercise: the National Security Strategy, last published in 2015. Other states have nuclear weapons, it argues, and they may use their nuclear capability to threaten Britain, to influence decisions, or to sponsor nuclear terrorism. But in setting out this risk, the document does not assess whether it is likely or unlikely: it simply says that it exists. As has been the case over decades of justification for British nuclear weapons, these are assertions that are impervious to debate. The bottom line is the Catch-22 argument first deployed, regrettably, by Tony Blair when in 2007 he rushed parliament into approving the renewal of Trident. This is that we cannot tell what may happen in "20 to 50 years" times, and so we can never let down our nuclear guard.

The result is that assessing military threats occupies a parallel universe to assessing civil threats such as a pandemic. While the notional military threat is immune to challenge and claims tens of billions of pounds annually, the very real threat of a pandemic has been starved of funds. And we are now paying the cost.

Oxford CND Newsletter, July-August 2020