Path dependency and UK preparedness: from Nuclear War to Coronavirus

Path dependency and UK preparedness: from Nuclear War to Coronavirus

Guest post by Professor John Preston, Department of Sociology, University of Essex  

In the current Coronavirus pandemic there is an active public debate as to why the UK has adopted a different approach compared to other countries.  There is criticism of Government policy on Twitter and by organisations such as IndieSAGE (an independent version of the SAGE Government advisory committee) particularly in terms of whether the UK should have pursued lockdown sooner or developed a more active form of ‘test and trace’.  In my most recent work with Rhiannon Firth[1] we also critique the UK approach to the pandemic in terms of its neglect of social class.  However, in developing critiques and arguments against Government policy we tend to over-estimate how responsive (any) Government is to rational argument or debate on preparedness.  This is because the adoption of emergency preparedness measures in a country is not just decided by current debate but through history and the way in which institutions ‘interlock’ to produce, or negate, certain policy outcomes. 

In my ESRC project[2] the team and I took a comparative approach to looking at how five countries (UK, US, Japan, Germany, and New Zealand) arrived at the infrastructure and mass population protection policies that they have today.  We tracked the post-war history of infrastructure protection through archives and policy documents in each country, conducted interviews with emergency planners and policy makers and examined case studies of infrastructure failure events[3].  Initially we expected to find that there would be similarities between pairs, or groups, of countries based on their geography, economic system or hazard experienced.  We thought that we would see policy borrowing and the globalisation of preparedness approaches.  What we found was the opposite – that countries had national, divergent, systems of infrastructure and population preparedness.   Preparedness policy was path dependent. Even in the face of exogenous shocks (9/11, Fukushima, Christchurch earthquake) countries would not change their policies significantly.  In fact, exogenous shocks could act as a ‘correction’ in terms of putting countries back onto a path that they had drifted away from. After 9/11 Homeland Security could be seen as a continuation of the state led, civil society, efforts that the US had moved away from (but never completely abandoned) in the 1980s.  The work of Kathleen Thelen on how interlocking institutions bring about path dependence was particularly relevant here.  Countries approach emergencies in very different ways.

Preparing for nuclear war

Going back to the UK, following WWII, preparation for disasters was largely a matter for civil defence.  This was largely a military, rather than a civilian, concern and civil society efforts to ground civil defence were weak when compared with other countries (particularly the US).  Protection of government became the most important criteria from the late 1960s.  By the 1980s the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office were powerful voices against public, nuclear, preparedness efforts (which could be harmful to the UK’s geopolitical interests in drawing public attention to the UK as a target because of the housing of US nuclear weapons).   CND, other protest movements and popular culture also opposed preparedness and so the MOD and CND were effectively on the same side (as opposing preparedness) as far as the Home Office (who advocated public preparedness) were concerned.   The secretive and directive nature of preparedness also lagged behind sociological and psychological theories of behaviour in a nuclear attack which meant that the government never quite got the tone right in terms of what was being produced.  By the time they had revised their proposed guidance (being a slightly updated version of ‘Protect and Survive’) psychologists were critiquing the idea of didactic information and instructions.   Hence by the end of the 1980s civil defence was back to largely being a state secret[4].

This history helps us to explain idiosyncrasies in current UK preparedness for nuclear war.  For example, the UK does not currently have a publicised alerting system for nuclear attack whereas such systems exist most developed countries (including the US, Japan, France and Australia).  Extrapolating, this is probably an outcome of the institutional arrangements in the UK.   At the macro level (missile attack) arrangements for alerting are seen as a military matter and UK popular culture remains cynical about Civil Defence type arrangements with a weak civil society not really involved in emergency preparedness.  There are also probably geo-political and pragmatic concerns about what could be done in the UK which is a small island country where the alerting time from a Russian attack would be incredibly short.   This makes ‘policy borrowing’ from other countries difficult, if not impossible.

The Coronavirus pandemic  

Culturally we may think that British stoicism and a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ attitude are why we do not have measures such as emergency alerting or a culture of preparedness, but the more plausible answer is that it is our institutions.   That does not make the UK worse than other countries in terms of preparedness (just different) but it might explain where we are now in fighting COVID-19.  In terms of the Government response to the Coronavirus pandemic the UK Government is behaving little differently to how it acted in previous crises. The management of the pandemic is centralised, drawing on a narrow panel of experts and largely accepting a normative view of the population (which is why it was slow to respond to inequalities).  Information is revealed to the population at short notice in a form of ‘surge pedagogy’.  There are even correspondences between the public information used in previous campaigns and the COVID-19 publicity.  The ‘stay at home’ advice and the iconography used are similar to previous public information campaigns such as ‘Protect and Survive’.

This path dependence does not mean that the UK Government is above criticism but there are limitations in terms of how far academics (particularly those outside of Government) can make a difference to policy or practice through presenting alternative arguments.  Governments and institutions are bounded by histories that the current incumbents are often not even aware of.

John Preston is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, University of Essex.  He is the author of several books on disasters and preparedness including Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom (co-authored with Rhiannon Firth, 2020) and Grenfell Tower: Preparedness, Race and Disaster Capitalism (2019). Contact:

[1] Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom | John Preston | Palgrave Macmillan

[2] Professor John Preston | PaCCS (

[3] Full article: Community response in disasters: an ecological learning framework (

[4] Full article: The strange death of UK civil defence education in the 1980s (