Long before the coronavirus outbreak, The Right Honourable Sir Oliver Letwin was heavily involved in learning about Britain’s resilience in the face of what is termed a ‘Black Swan’ event, i.e. an event that is very rare. What he discovered prompted him to write a book to alert those in power to what needs to be done to secure our world in the event of a certain type of catastrophe. What he didn’t know was how relevant his concerns were in light of the current crisis. He talked to Fergus Byrne about Apocolypse How?
It was during his time as Minister for Resilience in David Cameron’s coalition government that Sir Oliver Letwin first began to seriously consider Britain’s areas of vulnerability to different forms of crisis. However, like just about everyone in Government then and since, coronavirus was not on the agenda. Oliver was looking at other scenarios.
In March he published a frightening book that details one possible vulnerability that this country—and indeed the wider world—has not made any concrete plans to defend us against. And the current coronavirus crisis has starkly underlined just how much we need to address his concerns.
Apocolypse How? describes a situation where Britain is the grip of a ‘Black Swan’ event—named as such because it is considered to be as rare as a black swan. In this case, the rare event is the complete failure of the National Grid. Oliver’s book starts with a fictional account of a massive network and electricity failure at a time when the world has gradually put advancing technology in charge of just about everything, from smart homes to transport.
In the opening chapter, one of the main characters can’t drive onto the M4 because his car’s motorway registration system is not working, due to its need for a satellite feed. Attempting to enter the motorway without this registration results in the car simply slowing to an eventual stop (somewhere safe one assumes). As the failure of the registration system is part of a countrywide communications breakdown, the obvious use of Sat Nav to find another way home is not an option. And, as by this time all cars are electric-powered, not knowing how to get somewhere presents difficult challenges. In a situation where people need help, such as the elderly or those with a disability, this problems hints at being just the tip of an iceberg.
Oliver has chosen a format of writing a fictional narrative followed by a chapter explaining how the story is possible and therefore not just fiction. The result is a very effective method of pointing out our vulnerabilities.
With his signature delivery of a thoughtful rationale, Oliver explained how he developed the idea behind the book. ‘I came gradually to the conclusion that we ought to try, in some more systematic way, to identify what the things were that were not so cataclysmic that you couldn’t do anything about them, and not so unimportant that you didn’t need to worry about them, but were midway between these—i.e. very important, but in principal, conceivably something you could do something about. So, for example, if a big meteor hits the earth and the earth ceases to have life on it, there’s not much we can do about it. And nuclear Armageddon, whilst we should try to prevent it, is not something that we are likely, if it should occur, to be able to remedy by making civil defence measures. And in the other extreme, a significant inconvenience somewhere in the country—you get over it and we pass on.’
In the case of what happens in Apocalypse How?, the key issue that Oliver believes we face is the lack of a ‘fallback option’ when integrated networks, which in the setting of the book are all reliant on the same power source, fail. All efforts appear to be going into ensuring that there isn’t a failure but little is being done to figure out what to do if there is.
‘I began to try to identify, systematically, what the risks were that were really high impact but were potentially preventable’, he explained. ‘As that work proceeded, it became increasingly clear that one of the things we are most exposed to is the convergence of networks and the increasing dependence, more and more, on them and the fragility that that engenders.’ He explained our propensity to look at disasters in terms of possibility and how easy it is to think “it’ll never happen.” But the fact is that that is still a gamble. ‘In the course of all that’ he said. ‘I learned about how, if you don’t understand them, statistics can mislead you and how you need to think about the difference between protecting against things and accepting that they may happen. And therefore you need some fallback if they did.’
Admitting that, even before the advent of coronavirus, we were in a period of ‘quite considerable challenges for government’ he became concerned that the immediacy of those challenges and further work on protecting against the things he describes in the book, or the development of fallback solutions, was likely to be put on the back burner.
‘So the reason for writing the book particularly’ he said, was to try to raise a salient issue and to ‘try to persuade people in the media and the population at large, and eventually politicians and governments, to take this sort of thing seriously. Even though, as I explained in the book, it’s not sexy in the short term.’
One of the striking things about Apocalypse How? is Oliver Letwin’s explanation of how Government works and why they can’t or won’t act to prevent ‘Black Swan’ events. For example, the mere act of ‘surviving politics’ is always more pressing, and anything that isn’t already happening, or isn’t happening within a short time, will always go to the back of the queue. There is also a consistent need to focus on problems that are considered ‘real’ rather than ‘hypothetical’.
If we’ve learned anything from coronavirus, it is that hypothetical can become real much quicker than has previously been realised.
Perhaps one of the more frightening explanations that comes from his knowledge of Government is his understanding of people and our natural fear of being wrong, looking stupid or not wanting to be blamed. Not only does surviving politics stop people from undertaking necessary actions because of a fear of being wrong, but there is also the belief that if you contribute to averting a crisis, the world is usually too busy with other things to thank you. Nobody notices the reason a crisis doesn’t happen. People trying to survive in politics, he suggests, generally won’t do something that they won’t be thanked for.
One scenario that shows a particularly glaring omission is the fact that, despite most hospitals having back-up generators for power, the latest communication technologies mean that within a few years there will be little or no old-fashioned methods of communication, like a walkie-talkie, except for organisations such as the army. In that situation, the army’s ability to communicate would be helpful, but if it can’t communicate with anyone else, it’s impossible for units to coordinate where their assistance will be most needed. The fact that little is being done to protect us, for example from an inability to communicate, is something that Oliver is keenly aware of. ‘I think there’s a great deal of effort going into protecting things against those sorts of failure, which is good’ he said. ‘But I think that the impetus to provide fallback solutions, as far as I can detect, was rather lost after the government dived into the Brexit scenario. And incidentally, I think we got further into our thinking than most other countries. This is not a UK problem this is a global problem and I hope that this is a message that can be spread across the world.’
Considering the hidden public services like food production, distribution and pharmacies etc that have been so important during the current crisis, the lack of their ability to communicate would be catastrophic. Imagine a situation where food suppliers were not able to communicate with supermarkets, where shops and services had fully committed to card payments, where we have become a cashless society and suddenly there was no electricity to make the system work? The public disorder would be a nightmare to control.
However, this is one scenario that Oliver Letwin doesn’t dwell on in Apocalypse How? The potential for public disorder on a massive scale could have made this book a contender for a great disaster movie. But instead, he took a different angle. ‘Maybe there would be significant public disorder’ he explained, ‘but I think that’s the lurid end of it. And similarly, of course, I could have taken a massive cyber-attack in the sort of novel bit of the book, which is also sexier. But what I was trying to do was point out, without being lurid, and in an entirely sort of humdrum way, that actually there are great exposures.’
Instead of the blockbuster angle, he sought to bring home the vulnerability of the elderly during a crisis like this. ‘I thought that the case of looking after the frail elderly—which is obviously an issue that is of great importance now and will continue to be even more and more important as our population ages over the next ten, twenty and thirty years—actually depends pretty comprehensively on people being able to move around; people being able to communicate with one another and all the things, in short, that are fragile. So I thought it was a good way to illustrate, without being lurid, how significant the problem could get.’
He is very aware of the potential for an enormously catastrophic situation. ‘I very much have not taken the extreme end because at the extreme end, of course, you could have the whole world’s system failing. It’s perfectly imaginable that cross-contamination and convergence could make that happen. I didn’t want to take a case like that because I didn’t want people to say “well obviously he’s taken an extreme case”. I’ve just taken one country at random which happens to be ours, it could be any country. I’ve taken a fact that everybody knows, which is that there are a lot of elderly and frail people in their homes whom one way or another need to be looked after—heated, fed and so on. And I’ve pointed out something blindingly obvious, which is that if the systems on which people’s records of where they are, ability to get to them, ability to have their lights and gas and so on and ability to talk to them fails, you’ve got a problem. And you don’t need many days, under certain conditions—I’ve pictured a rather cold spell—to become really quite serious.’
The scenario and resulting difficulties that Apocalypse How? depicts are frightening, especially given the current situation. But when Oliver talked about his book we were in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. So early that he had even hoped the book might be published at a time when his message may have a chance of being heard. ‘All I’m trying to do is raise the alarm’ he said, ‘in the hope that now there’s a slightly calmer period in our national life again the government will take up the issue.’ One month later and that slightly calmer period is a distant memory.
However, before we were thrown into the depths of the crisis, he offered hope that much of our health system has made some preparation for something like the coronavirus problem. He highlighted Public Health England which he described as ‘a body of very expert people, very serious people who have a great deal of knowledge and practical experience. And they’ve developed a series of rigmaroles and I’ll bet you that they turn out to be very good at controlling the spread of coronavirus, because they know what you have to do to track people down and take the appropriate measures and so on.’ He recalled how, when dealing with Ebola cases in West Africa which didn’t have public health systems, helping them to set up rudimentary health measures and systems was more important than building makeshift hospitals. ‘So that’s an area in which Britain is pretty well equipped with the equivalent of a fallback mechanism.’
When he was dealing with Ebola and with various of the fever outbreaks, one of the things that became clear is that there are all sorts of preparations that can be put in place. ‘You can’t stop those things from happening’ he says, talking about virus outbreaks. ‘But you can build up protective systems and good public health systems that with any luck curtail them and limit the damage. But we obviously don’t control the world sufficiently to prevent viruses from happening and spreading, to begin with. What we can do is to lay in if were canny about it, and overcome some of the problems of this economy. Lay in vaccines for example that may not be very useful at the moment, but which might become useful if and when. And that’s something that I was involved in when I was a Minister. And there is now a much better arrangement for funding and holding vaccines that may be useful but are not immediately relevant, and which commercially, therefore, wouldn’t be held.’
While the world is currently in the grip of a crisis beyond anything we could have imagined much of what Oliver Letwin talks about appears to be very relevant. Not directly to the ravages of coronavirus. But to use a popular turn of phrase, Apocalypse How? is a ‘wakeup call’ that can be applied to a number of scenarios. The key point is that despite our great efforts to build walls to stop things happening, we also need to be prepared and have a fallback option in the event that our efforts to stop a crisis from occurring do fail.
Apocalypse How? Is published by Atlantic Books
Price £14.99 ISBN-13 9781786496867
Oliver Letwin was due to talk about the book at The Electric Palace on April 6. This talk has been postponed until further notice.