1. What is the national risk register?

The national risk register (NRR) is the public-facing version of the national security risk assessment (NSRA), the government’s classified assessment of the national security risks facing the UK or its overseas interests. It provides information to the public on the “most significant risks” that the government has assessed could occur and which could have a wide range of impacts on the country, such as terrorist attacks or natural events like flooding. It also details how the government is identifying, assessing, preparing for and dealing with such potential emergencies.

The first NRR was published in 2008, fulfilling a commitment made in the 2008 ‘National security strategy’. The most recent edition was published in December 2020 to cover the coming two years.

2. What are the risks identified in the national risk register and what action have successive governments taken to mitigate them?

The risks identified in the NRR are summarised in the following categories:

  • environmental hazards
  • human and animal health
  • major accidents
  • societal risks
  • malicious attacks
  • risks occurring overseas

2.1 Environmental hazards

Environmental hazards identified in the most recent NRR included: flooding; severe weather, including in space; volcanic eruptions; poor air quality; and earthquakes.

The document included overviews of each risk and measures to reduce them. For example, on flooding the document detailed how the UK and devolved governments were reducing vulnerability through spending on flood defences, managing water flow and tailoring place-based resilience schemes. In addition, the NRR summarised work on better monitoring and forecasting systems and improved coordination.

2.2 Human and animal health

The register also detailed the risks to the public from human and animal diseases. It noted that infectious diseases in humans “take a variety of forms”, with some diseases having the potential to cause a civil emergency due to the number of people they might affect in a short space of time. This included flu pandemics, which are described in the register as “natural events” that happen when a “new virus has the potential to spread quickly and cause more serious illness in a large proportion of the population due to the lack of immunity”.

To mitigate the risk of human disease pandemics and influenza, the government stated in the NRR that contingency plans existed for many emerging infections and that it was “continually learning” the lessons from previous outbreaks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, the government said that it continued to collaborate with other governments to work on the prevention, detection and research of such diseases.

The register also outlined the measures that the UK had in place to respond to a pandemic:

  • Detection: specialist epidemiology and microbiology capabilities, which exist to “identify, characterise and respond” to infectious diseases
  • Clinical countermeasures: this includes stored medicines, antibiotics and consumables
  • Vaccines: these are developed “at the earliest opportunity” once new viruses are identified, with the government anticipating that it would take at least four to six months after a pandemic begins before a vaccine becomes available.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): the register states that emergency responders have PPE for “severe pandemics and infectious diseases”.

Further examining pandemics, the register included a case study on the then government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case study, the then government said that following the pandemic, it was “now better prepared” for future ones. It stated that this was because the work to strengthen public health systems and other capabilities developed for Covid-19 would form a “key part” of the response to future outbreaks. This included:

  • creating a single, scientifically led, agency to focus on the challenges posed by wider domestic and global threats to health
  • increasing domestic production of PPE
  • the then government working to establish a long-term vaccine strategy

Regarding animal diseases, the register noted that some animal diseases, such as avian influenza, could spread from animals to humans and cause illness or fatalities. The NRR said that there were laws and procedures to reduce the risk of diseases reaching animals in the UK and to prevent undetected diseases from spreading should they do so. These included: monitoring disease outbreaks; placing import controls on livestock, pets, zoo animals and animal products; and banning feeding animals swill and kitchen waste to reduce the risk of animals encountering infected materials.

The government said that there were also measures for when an outbreak had been identified. These included imposing strict biosecurity protocols and humanely culling susceptible animals on infected premises to reduce the spread of disease.

2.3 Major accidents

Major accident risks include widespread electrical failure and major transport accidents. The NRR reported that to mitigate such risks there had been improvements to infrastructure. There were also safety regimes and regulations in place depending on the mode of transport. In response to major accidents, the NRR outlined that all transport sector operators were required to have plans that covered a range of possible incidents.

2.4 Societal risks

The register classified industrial action and widespread public disorder as examples of societal risks. It noted that consequences of public disorder can include physical or psychological casualties and disruption to critical services, particularly policing and health.

In response to protests in Tottenham in 2011 which “escalated into widespread violent disorder”, the register detailed that “significant work” had been carried out to “improve the government’s understanding” of how public disorder can begin. This would allow the police to “identify risks” and prepare plans to allocate and mobilise resources in advance.

2.5 Malicious attacks

The register noted that the “nature of terrorism” was “changing” and that it was “becoming more diverse, more complex and increasingly dispersed and volatile—both domestically and overseas”. In response to the terrorism threat, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, ‘CONTEST’, first published in 2011, has four objectives to reduce the risk to the UK, its citizens and overseas interests from terrorism:

  • Prevent by stopping people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism in the first place.
  • Protect by strengthening the UK’s defences against a terrorist attack.
  • Pursue by stopping terrorist attacks, up to and including at the scene of an attack.
  • Prepare where an attack cannot be stopped, by mitigating its impacts.

2.6 Risks occurring overseas

The register also detailed overseas incidents which could require a crisis response from the UK government. This included civil or political unrest of such severity that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office may advise UK citizens to leave an affected area. To manage the risk and create a safer worldwide environment, the government said that it works with international partners including the UN and NATO to increase global security. In addition, the government said that it engages with other governments to help prepare for and respond to natural disasters to reduce their impact.

3. What have successive governments said about maintaining the register and preparing for risks?

In April 2020, Boris Johnson’s government was asked a parliamentary question about which departments were responsible for maintaining the NRR and ensuring that other departments had up-to-date plans to mitigate the risks identified in the register.

In response, Lord True, then a minister of state at the Cabinet Office, said that it was the responsibility of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat within the Cabinet Office to maintain the register. He also stated that other government departments were responsible for “identifying and assessing” risks. As part of this, each department was responsible for “overseeing levels of preparedness” within their sectors to ensure they had “up-to-date plans” to “mitigate and respond” to the risks contained in the register.

In December 2021, the House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee published its report on preparing for extreme risks. In its report, the committee argued that “better publicity” of the register was “essential”. This was to ensure that the public was aware of risks that they may encounter and to “outline the expectations on them in any risk scenario”. Therefore, the committee suggested that the register, in addition to the NSRA, be presented on a “dynamic, data driven web-portal”. The committee said that this portal should be easy to navigate, evolve in response to threats, and provide “practical, targeted advice” to individuals.

In March 2022, the then government published its response to the committee. It said that it agreed with the recommendation and was currently developing a communication plan for the NSRA and the NRR.

In October 2022, Liz Truss’s government was asked a parliamentary question on what assessment it had made of the adequacy of the register. Responding, Edward Argar, then a minister of state at the Cabinet Office, said that every risk in the NRR was “owned and assessed by lead government departments” which worked with a “wide range of partners to coordinate, enact and test plans”. Mr Argar also stated that the register was “informed by the expertise of government departments, academia, private sector and the wider scientific community via a scientifically rigorous process”.

4. What has recently been said about reforming the register?

In recent years, many stakeholders in risk planning and disaster management have called for the register to be reformed.

Writing for the Royal United Services Institute in January 2021, a former head of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Suzanne Raine, criticised the NRR in its current format. In her article, Ms Raine described the NRR as a “reasonably exhaustive list of bad things that could be done to us, by someone else, by ourselves or by nature”. She also stated that it did not include “threats to plans and opportunities, or the risks to the achievement of the country’s goals”. She contended that one threat was the breaking-up of the UK, which she described as a “high impact/increasing probability event”. To coordinate assessment and analysis of risks to the UK, she called for the creation of a central risk assessment function in the Cabinet Office, which would signal when risks were changing in real time, “not as part of a periodic review”.

In September 2021, Lord Harris of Haringey (Labour), a resilience specialist, also criticised the NRR, warning that it did not properly account for a domino effect with extreme events. Speaking to the Telegraph, Lord Harris said that although there were 38 risks detailed in the register, “they are all in siloes”. He also stated that “what isn’t recognised in the register is that one [extreme event] will trigger another”. For example, a “cascading effect” of no power could result in ATMs not working and people subsequently “running out of money”.

In the same article, Sam Hilton, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, warned that “political short-termism” was a key problem of government risk scanning. He stated that “there’s a bias towards what’s knowable and expected”. Similarly, Dr Toby Ord, a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, stated that the then government’s time frames in the NRR were too short and did not account for the risk of less likely events occurring:

One key way to improve the register would be to extend its time horizons beyond the current two-year outlook, and for it to give greater weight to risks that are less likely than, say, flooding, but much more devastating were they to actually occur. As Covid-19 has shown, the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable, and we need to be prepared.

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Cover image by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash.