The NSC has gone missing: man walks down an otherwise empty Whitehall during lockdown. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

May 20, 2020   8 mins

Ben Wallace caused eyebrows to be raised when he appeared in front of the Defence Select Committee on 22 April. The Defence Secretary confirmed that the National Security Council, the decision-making body of those charged with protecting the nation, which routinely meet once a week, had not met since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.

Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the committee, was alarmed by the admission. Britain was at greater risk at the moment, not just because of Covid-19, but because, as Wallace had attested, our traditional enemies were not stopping in their testing of Britain’s defences.

Worse still, by confirming the Council had not met, had not Wallace bequeathed an advantage to those enemies? The NSC, after all, is the only meeting of all the major figures involved in maintaining the security of the nation.

Covid-19 is Britain’s most serious national security event since the Second World War. But the UK was well prepared, according to international standards, for a pandemic that had for years been deemed a Level 5 national security risk — the highest level — in the National Risk Register, the formal measure of ranking the risks to the country.

In the 2015 Strategic Defence and Spending Review (SDSR), the foreword by David Cameron, then prime minister, mentioned the threat of a pandemic in the same sentence as the threat from Isis, Russia’s annexation of Ukraine and cyberattacks. It was also there in the foreword to the 2010 SDSR, and the 2017 National Security Review said: “…one or more major hazards can be expected to materialise in the UK in every five-year period. The most serious are pandemic influenza, national blackout and severe flooding.”

Yet despite this acknowledgment of the threat of a global pandemic, a disturbing picture forms: no one can recall, with any certainty, ever discussing pandemic preparedness policy at the National Security Council. One attendee, with the benefit of hindsight, said, “they never took it seriously”.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, politicians and officials who have served on it, in it and around it for the past decade paint a picture of disastrous structural problems in dealing with threats not considered to be “immediate enough”, huge issues with accountability, even once decisions were made, and of a perceived over-focus on specific, operational risk. The NSC, to quote one long-time attendee, had been “captured by the security services”; a perception that the focus become tilted more towards intelligence and immediate challenges than longer-term strategic aims.

It is only now, as the previously abstract pandemic now kills tens of thousands and causes an economic catastrophe, that the shortcomings of Whitehall’s national security apparatus are being laid bare. One NSC source said: “The crisis handlers are actually handling immediate crises, [those planning for one] are theoretical people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.”

It all started with the best of intentions. The NSC was formally set up in 2010 by David Cameron partly in reaction to the informal way in which decisions about the Iraq War were taken under Blair, and partly, says one, because they were “sort of copying the Americans”. It was, another says, established to “do the thinking that would then go across all the departments”.

It is all very secretly done and protocol strictly adhered to. Minutes of the meetings and the outcomes of decisions taken are closely guarded: sometimes, not closely enough. It is perhaps surprising, given how much of a toll global health insecurity can take, that the Health Secretary is still not an automatic member of the Council: another example of the types of security threats that were deemed most immediate and most worthy of the NSC’s time.

To discuss certain topics, a non-member Secretary of State would have to submit agenda items and be invited into the meeting. Those items would then be filtered by NSC officials over a lengthy period. Given the Council normally meets weekly, items would be put on the agenda three or four months in advance with the running order of that agenda discussed with the different departments over the preceding three to six months. Discussions were focused on those areas where ministers needed to make choices about what to do next: “this isn’t a ‘show and tell’ meeting”, said one senior official, “we need a decision [from it].”

But members of the Council were frustrated at what they saw as a lack of time for the politicians to be given the space to make decisions and interrogate the advice. “By the time we had heard from the deputy national security adviser, the Joint Intelligence Committee chairman, each of the agency chiefs, the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under-Secretary, the ambassador to the country concerned, and the Chief of Defence Staff, there was relatively little time for the senior ministers present to review and test the merits of the policy or findings in discussion,” says a previously long-standing member. “It became a cumbersome process with too many officials, and too little political input”.

In order to achieve decisions, those officials within the National Security Council (NSC-O) meet to refine agendas and coordinate departments, along with at least four sub-committees including one which looked after “threats, hazards, resilience and contingencies”. This sub-committee, despite having its membership listed at Secretary of State level, was “mainly attended by junior ministers”, and one of those who did attend said “there was one discussion of bio-warfare”, but at no stage did a need arise for senior ministers to make a decision on policy relating to a pandemic. “We never had it flagged as an issue,” said one former NSC official, “if there was no policy decision to be taken there was no particular reason for it to come back to the NSC”.

When asked about the types of discussions had inside the NSC, Liam Fox, former Conservative Defence Secretary, told the Rule Britannia podcast: “I always felt there was too little discussion about what one might describe as blue-sky thinking — what are the things that are not happening yet that we need to incorporate into our planning?” In describing the ineffectiveness of parts of Whitehall Rory Stewart, the former Conservative MP and cabinet minister, puts it more bluntly: “Nobody on the National Security Council wants to tell you what a total joke the National Security Council is.”

Given that pandemics were rightly identified as such a significant threat, why wasn’t there more discussion about a response? If the meetings became focused on ministers making policy decisions, could it be because policy towards a pandemic was settled outside the NSC: why ask for discussion and decision on a policy that causes no disagreement?

There was, after all, a strategy in place. In 2011, the Department for Health produced the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy that superseded a previous plan produced in 2007. The document “describes the Government’s strategic approach for responding to an influenza pandemic”, displays the “lessons learned” from the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Its target audience was health bodies, and the professionals within them, as well as children’s services and local authorities.

It was produced by the Department’s own Pandemic Preparedness Team in consultation with other departments deemed important to carrying out its directions. A senior figure in the Department of Health at the time recalls that the general response from the public health community was that the plan was as good as anywhere in the world and that the Department had put considerable effort into the preparation of it. Rightly, the document was discussed with the-then Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley.

But as Covid-19 arrived and spread, the policy advice, which even until very recently was being cascaded down to local NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, had to be ripped up. It was inadequate. On mass gatherings, the document states that “there is very limited evidence that restrictions on mass gatherings will have any significant effect on influenza virus transmission”, and nowhere is the need for social distancing mentioned: the view was that those unaffected would be allowed to carry on with “business as usual”.

“We planned,” recalls a senior figure in the Health Department in 2011, “for an influenza pandemic, not coronavirus.” When asked whether there were similar plans drawn up in response to a SARs-like outbreak, a respiratory virus closer to Covid-19, the source said “we didn’t think about SARs in an influenza plan — we needed to think separately about SARs”. The source did not know if the department had done that.

So how was it that the lauded text on pandemic preparation, used as the formal guide by government departments and public health bodies nearly a decade later, and which set out the response to a Level 5 national security threat, and which then had to be ripped up, was never discussed by the National Security Council? According to one source involved in the 2011 strategy: “Why would you go to the NSC? Everybody who needed to have input had it. You’d call for the NSC to meet if the threat actually emerged.”

Surely this is a significant failing. How can the NSC be helping to protect the nation, its primary task, if those with the greatest responsibility for that protection never saw, discussed or questioned the only plan in place to tackle the greatest threat?

There are several reasons, as I see it, it failed in this task. The first, is that ministers did not push hard enough in tasking officials to show they had thought through the various possible scenarios. Preparation had only been done for an influenza pandemic but no questions seem to have been asked at NSC level about whether that template would cover other types of pandemics, or indeed whether plans for different types of pandemics had even been considered. As one NSC attendee told me: “There is nobody who has got the power and heft and who understands the problem who will say to their departments and officials, ‘You will spend another £100m on preparing kit.’ Putting things aside wins no votes.”

Another flaw can be found in the national security system in Whitehall as a whole. “David Cameron wanted the NSC meeting to be operational rather than strategic and Theresa May was mostly focused on domestic security and cyber,” says an ex-senior official. Liam Fox has said previously that the NSC “focuses too much on the traditional security threats, largely terrorism, and in recent times that has been more than enough of a threat to take up the time of the National Security Council”. In any case, even if emerging threats had eaten up more of the thinking of NSC members and even if decisions had been taken on those strategic threats, a highly-regarded security source asked, perhaps rhetorically, “who would be charged with following up on that?”

There is no doubt that many of the decisions made at the NSC have saved lives and protected the United Kingdom. But the fact that the policy response to the top-tier threat was not discussed at the top-table of our national security structure in the years before it happened, surely points to a weakness in the effectiveness and assiduousness of that system.

After correctly identifying a pandemic as a serious risk to the country, the NSC did not interrogate the policy response to it: a lack of oversight that would be unthinkable for threats from terrorism or kinetic warfare. Why does it seem that no one on the NSC asked to see the preparations? Why was time not built-in to discuss them? Either the National Security Council is where decisions about the UK’s responses to managing serious threats to the nation are taken, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, what is it for?

In the 10 years since its inception, the most august and important meeting of the most senior ministers responsible for the security of the nation did not pay enough attention to what they themselves acknowledged as one of the biggest threats. And not only did it fail to properly contemplate the British response to a conceivable pandemic, it has now gone missing during it, as the Defence Secretary confirmed.

If the system is not made more effective, more robust and is given a clearly defined purpose, not just to anticipate threats but to question the preparations for them, what happens next time catastrophe falls?

In response to the issues raised in this article, a Government spokesperson said: “We do not routinely comment on matters relating to the National Security Council.

“The government continues to protect the UK’s national security, while addressing the pressing demands of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have been proactive in implementing lessons learned around pandemic preparedness. This includes being ready with legislative proposals that could rapidly be tailored to what became the Coronavirus Act, plans to strengthen excess death planning, planning for recruitment and deployment of retired staff and volunteers, and guidance for stakeholders and sectors across government.”

Tom Swarbrick is a journalist, broadcaster on LBC radio and host of the podcast, Rule Britannia.