Covidspring II: It takes a Virus
Rethinking Critical National Infrastructure
Our state was not secure against a virus. 

In the first part of this essay I talked about the State of Exception and the way in which power once given is rarely given back. There are clearly positive and negative ways in which residual power derived from the state of exception might be used by the government to deliver their previously stated objectives of disruption. One of the most interesting ideas to emerge from Dominic Cummings entry into Number 10 was a rethink of how government works. Especially the idea of civil service reform. This is a constant theme of what used to be called the discipline of Public Administration. It is perfectly satirised in this Yes Minister episode. Cumming’s first forays cost a Chancellor and merged the junior Ministerial teams of the FCO and DFID but left the funding settlement so far untouched. There was an argument building against the foreign aid budget before the crisis and that might be increased after. Boris Johnson was already looking at a rethink on conditionality of AID spending. So there will be more disruption in this direction. But the lesson that the COVID Spring should teach us is much more profound: Power is concentrated in too small a geographical area for the safety of the state.

It is 2025. COVID-25 has an incubation period of 24 hours and a fatality rate of 75% across vulnerable groups, middle aged people educated at oxbridge. The outbreak begins when a visiting delegation travels in from Heathrow on the Piccadilly line to Leicester Square at rush hour and then gets the Northern Line to Waterloo. The next morning the same group take the Waterloo and City Line to Bank and have meetings at the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange. Then they go on the circle line to St James Square and visit the Treasury and the Treasury select committee.  Whitehall, Westminster, the Square Mile, more or less covered in a short space of time and a large chunk of the body politic potentially infected. 

And that is not using chemical or biological weapons.

The hard power of the British state is of course its nuclear deterrent and its trusted and respected armed forces. But its soft power is in its people. There are many vital groups and we are celebrating them rightly at the moment: NHS workers, supermarket staff and so on. But the people who run the institutions that run the country are also key workers, especially at a time of crisis. The people that run the institutions that generate wealth, also matter – they do the investing in the start-ups and the factories that make up the economy. Not all of them are within in the M25 area of course but 1/5 of GDP comes from London and the area made a net contribution of £32b to the rest of the country in 2016/7

It is 2020. COVID-19 has hit London harder than anywhere in the country.

If this had been war there would have been evacuation perhaps. But this was not war, it was a state of exception, so there was concentration through the lockin. When the lockin ends and people emerge the institutional and economic structures will be in the same places, even if more people work from home.

The physical concentration of critical national infrastructure at the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak should be a moment for rethinking our critical national infrastructure and critical information infrastructure. This might connect with the disruptive ideas of Dominic Cummings but that does not mean it is not true.

There are two kinds of critical infrastructure. Critical national infrastructure. That which is essential to the security of a nation state. If differs from place to place.

Running a Cyber Security policy makers workshop in Ghana few years back we compared what was included and what was not included in the 7-8 states represented at the session. In Mauritius it includes the beaches because tourism is so central to the economy but not defence because there is no real army.

In the UK there are 13 national infrastructure areas and within these there are the defined critical national infrastructure entities which conform to HMG’s definition:

a) Major detrimental impact on the availability, integrity or delivery of essential services – including those services whose integrity, if compromised, could result in significant loss of life or casualties – taking into account significant economic or social impacts;


b) Significant impact on national security, national defence, or the functioning of the state.’

The critical information infrastructure is defined by the National Cyber Security Centre.

The managing departments, physical locations and the homes of most of the people who operate at the higher levels of our critical national infrastructure are located in the M25 area. While many of the facilities are outside that area the command and control heart of the UK CNI is dangerously close together.

We have known this for a long time and arguments against changing it have been inertia, culture and lifestyle based. The inertia argument is captured in that Yes Minister episode and also by the fear of taking on the vested interests of the civil servants who live and work in central London and want to live and work in central London. The culture argument is that it pays to have proximity to encourage the sharing of information and co-operation across departments of state. I wonder if those arguments will be made so powerfully in post-Virus age of Zoom. The lifestyle argument is a strong one of course for the people who are making it.

I am writing from my corner of Pimlico. But I am not part of anybody’s critical national infrastructure. Culture and Lifestyle are also code for the best and brightest will simply not join the civil services if it is not based in SW1. There we must return to Mr Cumming’s argument that if this is the best and brightest that the UK has to offer, then we have a problem.

The last few weeks have rendered arguments against the decentralisation of critical national infrastructure obsolete and now is the time for a comprehensive physical re-shaping of the spatial distribution of the human components of critical national infrastructure.

The department I work with most closely in government, the FCO, is by definition good at remote working, rotating people in and out of the centre and devolving responsibility between the centre and posts. The only reason it needs a presence in central London is to engage with embassies. The rest of the department does not need to be on Whitehall. The Treasury has had most of its power shifted into Number 10, the rest can safely move to York. The Stock Exchange is dominated by electronic trading, it could that just as easily do that from Cardiff. The Bank of England does not need to be in the square mile, it can be in Birmingham. The Ministry of Defence can easily move the bulk of its operations to Poole. The Cabinet never actually needs to meet in London, it can always meet virtually, though on perhaps a more secure platform that it appears to have been using during this crisis. It is only really Parliament that does need to be retained in a place in which it can meet together but does that place have to be beside the Thames? Could it not be beside the Ouse or, indeed, the Mersey.