For years, secretive British security officials would work on risk assessments judged so confidential that only a small number of government officials could see their annual reports. This year, though, the government decided to change its ways: it posted the 2008 report on the Internet and held a news conference to publicize it.
British government officials said the report is meant to help individuals and local communities plan for these risks more effectively. “Governments had a habit of keeping important information away from the public. This made citizens less resilient in the face of risks,” says Charlie Edwards, senior researcher at London think tank Demos.
Edwards says the government realized that “society has become increasingly complex, so the ability of government to protect the population has become more and more difficult.” Neither do government agencies have the resources to attempt full protection, so officials are urging people to become more self-reliant.
The prime minister’s cabinet office, which issued the report, ranks attacks by terrorists on transport and electronic systems as the two likeliest risks, followed by attacks in crowded spaces. Pandemic influenza and severe weather are ranked fourth in probability but influenza is ranked number one in terms of the impact it would have on the country.
Of these risks, only a flu outbreak is expected to wreak severe damage and cost thousands of lives. “Up to one half of the U.K. population may become infected and between 50,000 and 750,000 additional deaths may have occurred by the end of a pandemic in the U.K.,” states the report.
The World Economic Forum, the Geneva-based think tank that organizes the annual Davos summit, also places an infectious disease pandemic as its top core global risk, ranked by likelihood and severity, in its 2008 report on global risk. It forecasts more than one million deaths from a worldwide pandemic and estimates its global economic impact at about $1 trillion. It warns that the U.K.’s large financial industry “leaves it particularly vulnerable to financial turmoil” caused by a pandemic.
A flu pandemic is likely to arrive in waves and to quickly overwhelm hospitals. The government says that it has stockpiled only enough first-line anti-influenza drugs to treat 25 percent of the U.K. population. “This should be sufficient to treat all those who fall ill in a pandemic of similar proportions to those that occurred in the 20th century,” it says.
While it’s probably good to inform the public, Edwards believes the government may be expecting too much from the average person. He says many people are unaccustomed to thinking about risk in a rational way, and they tend to react emo- tionally to threats.
The report “may not have the necessary impact,” he says, because it is too analytical. “The government needs to move beyond communicating risks to engaging communities about risks and working with them.”