Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
SSSIntelligence ;

Learning to be less surprised by surprises like Covid-19

Should we have been so surprised by the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK and its lethal consequences?

Intelligence enables better and timelier decisions to be made by reducing the ignorance of the decision takers. That applies as much to hazards such as viral pandemics as threats from hostile states and terrorists. Most of the information needed these days comes from open sources although secret intelligence is still essential when dealing with malign actors who wish to hide their capabilities and intentions. Having assessed intelligence does not mean being able to give exact predictions of how a situation may develop nor does it always involve simplifying decisions. Indeed, intelligence analysis often shows that issues are far more complex than current politics might suggest.

Over generations, the UK has evolved world class processes through the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and now the National Security Council for assessing and using secret intelligence to allow better management of threats. There is direct drive between the JIC and the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet colleagues as the chair of the JIC and heads of the intelligence agencies attend the National Security Council.

We also face serious natural hazards, including human and animal disease, major industrial and transport accidents, flooding and other civil calamities. A modern approach to national security needs comparable and compatible processes under the National Security Council for assessing and using intelligence on the serious global hazards that may lie ahead for the British people and British interests.

During my time as UK Intelligence and Security Coordinator after 9/11 a mutated flu pandemic occupied the top right of the strategic notice risk matrix, as it posed the most lethal potential combination of impact and probability of all the many threats and hazards. Such strategic notice should be the trigger for updating and testing plans (as was indeed done for a coronavirus pandemic with Exercise Cygnus in 2016) and for investment in resilience.


Sometimes there are failures of policy when governments follow strategies that do not deliver the desired results because the ends of the policy and means of delivering it are not aligned. And sometimes when, however logical the policy might appear to be to its drafters, the public does not buy into it. Often, new policies have to be developed in situations of great uncertainty, as with a novel virus of initially unknown characteristics. Leadership makes a big difference here, to generate quickly a sense of purpose in circumstances when danger looms and to guide the political class and public to reframe their expectations accordingly.

We know there can also be intelligence failures when threatening signs are missed or misunderstood - inevitable to some extent in a dangerous and chaotic world. I have no doubt there were missed opportunities to warn of the seriousness of Covid-19, given that the Chinese authorities have a history of not being open about internal affairs. A coronavirus outbreak was, however, not a strategic surprise, even though the timing and characteristics of the mutation could not have been predicted.

We should also recognise that there can be “warning failures” that fall into the cracks between intelligence and policy. 

Warning is a deliberative act. It is being pro-active. Warning is more than writing an intelligence estimate or a scientific paper.– David Omand

An effective warning is a loud shout to senior leadership for attention giving:

  • A strong knowledge claim about a very worrying development.
  • An assessment of why it really matters if it happens to us.
  • Sufficient illustration of how current policies may fail in order to drive home the message that action is needed now to avoid disaster. For example recognising that if a dangerous virus took hold in UK there would be a mismatch between the plans and the availability of PPE, testing facilities etc.

Warnings are a powerful bringing together of the intelligence and scientific assessments with honest and rigorous policy analysis. Both need to be developed independently, but then brought together to form an effective warning to senior national leadership.

When this crisis is over we need to look at what national security warning processes would be best suited to cover natural hazards as well as malign threats. All governments need strategic notice of possible serious developments, this is crucial to triggering honest debate over whether investment is needed in precautionary measures and national resilience. When and if a major risk crystallises the right systems will then be in place to enable the nation to rise to the challenge.

Sir David Omand is the former Director of GCHQ and a Visiting Professor to the Department of War Studies.

Making sense of the impact on society

Across society, each and every one of us are experiencing unprecedented changes to all aspects of our daily lives. Using their expertise, our researchers are working tirelessly to assess and…

Latest news