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Virus: is it the worst thing that could happen?

While it’s of scant consolation, the 2020 outbreak of coronavirus around the world is not likely to cause as many deaths as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and like other emergencies it was widely anticipated, and planned for. Is it the worst thing that can happen? Regrettably no, according to the UK National Risk Register.

The most recent edition of the register is 2017’s. The UK Cabinet Office planned for ‘pandemic flu‘ as part of wider ‘civil contingencies’. The story of that legal underpinning to the UK’s emergency response points to the feared risks, in terms of impact and likelihood.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was prompted by the 9-11 attack, and filled a void – how the state should step up to protect people and itself, in an extraordinary situation where peacetime norms would not work. That void had last been filled at the start of the cold war by the Civil Defence Act. Once the Soviet bloc fell, so did the need for civil defence in case of nuclear attack. The 2004 Act set out who were ‘first responders’ such as the 999 services and the National Health Service, and what they ought to do and their powers; and ‘category two’ responders such as telecoms, utilities and railways.

As the beginning of the 2017 risk register sets out, emergency response and resilience are about more than fire engines and hospital beds, but about the fabled British ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘blitz (or Dunkirk) spirit’, and (as seen in March 2020) an impulse of goodwill to volunteer services. But a spirit, and volunteering, against what?

The risks in the register are divided into five: natural hazards, diseases, major accidents, societal risks, and ‘malicious attacks’. As for the natural world, as the register says, Britain is quite fortunate; it does not have a history of serious earthquakes, let alone volcanic eruptions. As in February 2020 it can suffer from flooding, due to extreme weather. While less often occurring and less likely, ‘space weather’ such as solar flares can knock out GPS, and thus air travel, telecoms and power supplies and the like. This may be the ‘blackout’ mentioned in the film Blade Runner 2049, all the more sinister for not being explained.

As for disease, the register notes that pandemic flu is not ‘ordinary’, seasonal flu, of the kind that happens in any north-west European winter. “In a pandemic, the new virus will spread quickly and cause more serious illness in a large proportion of the population, due to the lack of immunity. There is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring, but it is impossible to predict when, or exactly what it would be like.”

Or, some unknown infectious disease could emerge; such as Ebola. The register says: “The likelihood of an emerging infectious disease spreading within the UK is assessed to be lower than that of a flu pandemic.”

Under ‘major accidents’ come the likes of the Buncefield oil storage terminal fire of 2005, ‘system failures’ or ‘widespread electrical failures’, or an industrial accident such a breached dam; or a release of radiological material, as at Windscale in Cumbria (later renamed Sellafield) in 1957, and Chernobyl and Fukushima; the chance is put by the register in the UK as ‘extremely low’. Such accidents could also come about as a result of malicious attack.

As for societal risks, they could be a strike (think of the 2000 petrol tankers’ strike that almost brought the UK to a halt) or civil disorder (again, think of the rioting and looting in English cities in 2011). But to return to ‘malicious attacks’, arguably in a cyber attack there lies the greatest risk.

Precisely because the world has become so connected, if online networks crashed, so would commerce and much of life, whether online libraries that have largely replaced physical libraries for students; electronic payments of salaries, and e-commerce; and any factory or utility such as a power station that has connected its SCADA control and process systems to the internet. The losses would not be so much in any destruction of property (although the possibilities are legion; an oil tanker relying on a computer system that failed might crash into a dock? or might not be able to set sail or open its hold, or cranes would not work to bring out cargo, and perishable goods would rot?) but in the disruption to humanity. And there the very connectedness would turn against humanity, because if ATM machines would not function, so people would not have cash as a back-up if their electronic systems of payment were not working.

A yet more drastic risk is only touched on by the register: CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear). The register says: ” While the likelihood of terrorists successfully conducting a larger scale CBRN attack in the UK [such as, ‘widespread use of biological agents or an improvised nuclear device’] is highly unlikely, it cannot be ruled out.” The register dates from before the Salisbury poisoning of the Skripals in March 2018.

The very worst risk of all is not embraced, even though well within living memory it was seen as a valid enough risk to prompt civil defence – in law, in a Civil Defence Corps, exercises, sirens tested in public, and credible fears of a Third World War, as during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Leaving aside who might fire nuclear weapons at whom, and why; the widespread yet more or less secret planning in the 1950s and 1960s came up with the grim term ’20-20-20′; that 20 nuclear missiles fired on 20 UK targets might produce 20m deaths, from the blast and radioactive fall-out. Yet the horror – and the enormous task of rebuilding and piecing together buildings, roads, industry – would not end there. As Britain relies for imports for about half of its food, presumably the crippling of the world’s trade routes would mean most of the survivors would starve.


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