Resilience in the face of uncertainty: early lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic
Simon Ashby () and
J. K. Wardman
Journal of Risk Research, 2020, vol. 23, issue 7-8, 880-887
The transboundary dynamics of COVID-19 present an unprecedented test of organisational resilience. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS), a talisman of collective fortitude against disease and illness, has struggled to cope with inadequate provision of virus tests, ventilators, and personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic. In this paper, we reflect on the historic dynamics and strategic priorities that have undermined the NHS’s attempts to navigate these troubled times. We invoke the organisational resilience literature to address ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of preparedness in readiness and response to the current pandemic. In particular, we draw on Meyer’s (1982) seminal work on ‘adaptation to jolts’, excavating current preparedness failings. We argue an overreliance on perceived efficiency benefits of ‘lean production’ and ‘just in time’ continuity planning superseded strategic redundancy and slack in the system. This strategic focus was not simply the result of a failure in foresight, but rather a failure to act adaptively on knowledge of the known threats and weaknesses spotlighted by earlier projections of an inevitable pandemic threat. In conclusion, we consider how the UK Government and NHS must now undergo a phase of ‘readjustment’ in Meyer’s terms, in light of these failings. We suggest that independent responsibility for national future preparedness should be handed to the NHS free from political interference. This would operate under the umbrella of a national emergency preparedness, resilience and response public body, enshrined in law, and similar in governance to the current Bank of England. This will help ensure that foresight is accompanied by durability and fortitude in safeguarding the UK against future pandemic threats.
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