Abstract: The United Kingdom has developed a large and intricate counterterrorism infrastructure in the face of a persistent and evolving terrorist threat. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a government-in-crisis mode has drawn on the counterterrorism playbook. The severity of the crisis, however, was partly explained by the United Kingdom’s failure to treat national health as a top-tier national security concern. Linking national health and national security issues, however, carries both risks (to civil liberties, for example), as well as potential rewards (by enabling better resourcing and coordination efforts to counter pandemics and bioterrorism simultaneously).
The last two decades have made clear that terrorist attacks can be high-impact events with the potential to significantly change the ways in which societies function. And yet, a single event in 2020—a global pandemic—has been able to produce these effects in a greater order of magnitude. Both terrorism events and public health emergencies require high levels of planning and resource distribution to manage risk. This article examines this overlap in greater detail.
Based on the scale of terrorist attacks that the United Kingdom has faced in recent years, this article begins by examining the bolstering of systems, processes, and budgets as a response to countering terrorism on a national scale. An internally focused decision-making system and resource dis-tribution framework has allowed for the use of mechanisms orig-inally developed to counter terrorism, such as the national threat level system and protection of critical infrastructure and civilians (‘Protect’ under the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy), to be employed in the response to other national emergencies, such as COVID-19. As such, the strengthened national security apparatus has led to significant overlaps between countering terrorism and COVID-19.
Despite these potential overlaps, current pandemic preparedness and response plans are dwarfed in comparison to security apparatuses, particularly when it comes to budgetary allocation, which has tended to focus on more traditional forms of defense spending rather than health threats, even though the latter may have a higher impact on society in terms of casual-ties. This brings up the question, therefore, of whether it is time to define national health as a top-tier national security priority. This article examines the potential risks as well as the rewards of this approach, with one of the risks relating to the issue of civil liberties. One potential reward in treating national health as a key national security concern is that it could lead to a more coordinated and better-funded effort to counter both future pandemics and bioterrorism, with steps taken to improve preparedness for the former benefiting readiness for the latter.
The Bolstering of National Counterterrorism Infrastructure in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has been unique in its ‘homegrown’ threat due to the history of its own extremist groups, such as Al-Muhajiroun, which pre-dated the growth of the Islamic State. According to the security and terrorism analyst Hannah Stuart, between the beginning of 1998 and the end of 2015, for example, 72% of Islamist-inspired terrorism offenses in the United Kingdom “were committed by UK nationals or individuals holding dual British nationality.”1 Between the beginning of 1998 and 2015, 56% of individuals linked to one or more proscribed terrorist organizations were directly linked to the U.K-.based group al-Muhajiroun, 24% were linked to al-Qa`ida, and only 11% were linked to the Islamic State.2
The frequency of ‘homegrown’ threats often added to growing risk concerns on national soil and therefore required greater protective resources within national borders. The scale of the threat means that systems and processes in the United Kingdom need to focus inwardly to prevent terrorist incidents; this was often implemented through measures such as Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), increased use of stop and search powers, and making terrorism sentencing longer to deter attacks.a
An inward focus has also meant altering systems and processes to protect critical infrastructure. For example, temporary physical security barriers were installed on eight central London bridges by the Metropolitan Police Service, following the 2017 terrorist attacks on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge.3 These were intended to stop cars from mounting the pavement and thus disrupt attacks that sought to use vehicles in pedestrian areas. Similarly, following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, plans to establish a chemical weapons defense center in the United Kingdom were announced in 2018 to protect against the risk of further occurrences.4 To protect against the use of a weapon of mass destruction within the country’s borders, the United Kingdom relies on its Reserve National Stock, a chain of warehouses housing antidotes and drugs to address this risk.5
Overlaps between U.K. Counterterrorism and Pandemic Response Structures
The model to address COVID-19 has followed a similar framework to the U.K. counterterrorism strategy. Three similarities are outlined below.
First, in May 2020, the British government announced the introduction of a five-level, color-coded alert system, similar to JTAC’sb terrorism threat levels, to help increase awareness of the virus’s impact on the British public. The National Health Service (NHS), which had already been operating its preparedness for an imminent terrorist attack under JTAC’s five threat levels, could therefore pivot its response similarly for the pandemic.6 A second similarity between the security and public health space was the appointment of Tom Hurd, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), to head a new Joint Biosecurity Centre, about which very little information is publicly available.7 Third, in its response to COVID-19, the British government followed a similar course of action to its counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, which relies on 4 Ps: Protect, Prevent, Pursue, and Prepare.8 The CONTEST strategy makes numerous references to “resilience,” focusing specifically on strengthening security and the resilience of transport networks, critical national infrastructure, aviation, and amongst local communities. The Resilience Capabilities Programme, part of CONTEST’s multi-agency response plan, ensures the key generic capabilities are in place to “respond to and recover from emergencies of all kinds, including terrorist attacks.”9 The United Kingdom’s Coronavirus Action Plan, published in March 2020, also consists of four elements: Contain, Delay, Research, and Mitigate, with the latter in particular focusing on preventing, preparing, and building resilience to future risks of disease, including through its Local Resilience Forums and Local Health Resilience Partnerships.10 Such similarities indicated that crossovers between existing apparatuses of security—which operate on the foundation that intervention in the present for an event that may occur in the future is anticipated through pre-emption, preparedness, precaution, and deterrence—was applied to preparing for a public health emergency.
Two additional areas of overlap between responses to terrorism and to COVID-19 in the United Kingdom have been in messaging to the public and in legislation to address risks. First, extraordinary measures to contain the pandemic taken by the British government have included closing schools, stopping unnecessary travel, advising people to limit contact, and running public interest campaigns to increase knowledge.11 This included the use of public health campaign messaging on staying at home, keeping a safe distance from others, and washing hands, similar to the CONTEST ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ counterterrorism communications strategy disseminated on public transport networks.12 The second overlap is in the use of emergency legislation, employed as a result of terrorism (for example, with counterterrorism legislation following the 7/7 bombings in the United Kingdom in the form of the Terrorism Bill introduced during the 2005-2006 parliamentary session)13 and more recently employed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.14 The need for emergency legislation is seen as largely performative and employed to manage risk. Political scientist Dr. Andrew Blick and legal scholar Professor Clive Walker, for example, have argued that the Coronavirus Act 2020 lacks the protections and precautions built into the already existing Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA).15 They argue that Parliament’s power to review the Coronavirus Act is “extraordinarily confined” and that the framework set down in the CCA would have provided the powers needed to manage the pandemic, but with much stronger constitutional oversight.16 Unlike counterterrorism legislation, moreover, regulations by the government have been introduced with Parliament in recess, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, for example, has argued that they have not been subject to sufficient scrutiny.17
Time to Define Public Health as a National Security Priority? Risks and Rewards
The 2019 Global Health Security Index, which is released annually by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, found that the average score of 195 countries on their pandemic preparedness was 40 out of a possible 100.18 While the United Kingdom’s overall score on preparedness was high (it ranked second globally), it ranked 11th in the category of having a sufficient and robust health system to treat the sick and protect health workers. This results from several gaps in resource distribution. While defense establishments within countries often have existing frameworks and processes to facilitate policy decisions for extreme risks, these resources tend to be used on present issues rather than future concerns, due to resource and budget constraints.19 A traditional focus on investment to prepare for situations of global warfare was recently criticized in light of revelations that the United Kingdom ignored warnings about the potential scale and impacts of pandemics, and failed to invest in the health security dimensions of national defense, such as extra capacity in the health system, beds, training, ventilators, and protective equipment.20 For example, the Ministry of Defence’s 2018-2019 report illustrated that it spent £38.0 billion, of which £15.9 billion was allocated to Defence Equipment and Support.21 The report announced an additional investment of £2.2 billion over the next two years, to be spent on submarines, information systems and services, land equipment, and ships. While the United Kingdom is a world leader in applying an all-hazard national risk assessment process, Exercise Cygnus (run in October 2016) exposed the gaps in Britain’s pandemic response plan, including a shortage of critical care beds and personal protective equipment.22 The exercise’s findings are yet to be made publicly available. This lack of transparency has meant that it is impossible to discern whether the recommendations contained in a resultant report were acted upon.
The COVID-19 crisis, therefore, has exposed many gaps in response mechanisms to pandemics. Resource allocation priorities and budgetary constraints have meant that the United Kingdom’s response to traditional security concerns is stronger than its response to pandemics. How political leaders frame issues helps determine which issues are seen as strategic priorities and which are not. As of writing, the total number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United Kingdom (at over 50,000) was more than 14 times the total number of deaths as a result of terrorism in the United Kingdom since 1970.c The pandemic has also had a large impact on the economy: while the United Kingdom recorded £38.3 billion loss in GDP terms due to terrorism between 2004-2016, business bailouts alone due to COVID-19 have cost the U.K. economy more than £100 billion.23 This means there may be a case for framing national health issues as a top-tier national security concern. There are, however, several potential risks as well as potential rewards in taking this approach.
In order to shift strategic priorities to manage the crisis, and to enable buy-in from civilian populations, elected leaders have framed the fight against COVID-19 through the lens of war. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, has often described the fight against COVID-19 as a war against “an invisible killer” and stressed that civilians must do “everything we can to stop it.”24 d Similar examples were made in the past with natural disasters.25
Framing further impacts the public’s perception of risks. Following the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, a Guardian/ICM poll illustrated that 73% of Britons would trade civil liberties for security, with only 17% rejecting it outright.26 A more recent survey by YouGov in May 2018 found that Britons would still be willing to trade civil liberties for the purposes of countering terrorism: 67% were in favor of monitoring all public spaces in the United Kingdom with CCTV cameras, 63% were in favor of making it compulsory for every person in the United Kingdom to carry an ID card, 64% supported keeping a record of every British citizen’s fingerprints, and 59% supported a DNA database.27 Similarly, a poll by Ipsos Mori in April 2020 found that almost 66% of British people were supportive of the government using their mobile phones to track those who suffered from COVID-19, and inform people that they may be at risk of contact and transmission.28 Security resources are also likely to be diverted to what are perceived as the greatest threats, often impacted by previous framing efforts, so that politicians can be seen to be doing something during a crisis. This creates the risk that resources are devoted to meeting threats in the here and now, rather than dedicated to preventative approaches in the future. Moreover, the framing of health concerns as security issues could lead to privacy issues being overlooked in the interests of public safety.
Like terrorism attacks, it is in the interest of governments to restore public confidence and increase safety after public health emergencies. This is often done through three mechanisms, which are common to both incidents: emergency legislation, increased policing powers, and the use of surveillance infrastructure to further protect against threats. Following COVID-19, in the few days after government announcements were made in the United Kingdom regarding changes to police powers in March 2020, phone lines were inundated with calls from the public.29 Therefore, a risk exists that police officers will be overstretched when it comes to policing lower-order offenses (such as civilians flouting government-issued guidance and continuing to socialize in large numbers), or that resources will be wasted on policing minor threats. This is coupled with an increased risk of infection. Unfortunately, there have been a number of incidents in the United Kingdom where civilians have attempted to cough on officers and infect them with the virus, and a number of videos circulating online where malicious actors have advised civilians to infect individuals who work at public institutions in order to add stress to those operating at maximum capacity.30 In the United States, this risk has been met with the decision to potentially prosecute those who intentionally spread COVID-19 under counterterrorism legislation, as the virus “appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent.’”31 There are issues with this approach, however, including lack of political motive. Previous cases covered under such legislation have included the deliberate use of anthrax as a biological weapon in order to target particular groups (such as politicians) for specific purposes.32 Expanding the law beyond common-law assault has implications for the punishment being proportionate to the offense. Unlike many federal terrorism statutes, the criminalization of the use of a weapon of mass destruction does not require the government to prove that the offense contains a transnational or foreign element.33 As a result, an infected person who maliciously coughs on someone may be charged as a terrorist, even if they have no links to a terrorist organization.34
Managing impending threats often requires some use of existing security apparatuses. Where logistical preparedness is at risk, existing defense and policing apparatuses often step in to fill the gaps. In the United Kingdom, 20,000 military personnel have been on standby as part of the COVID Support Force.35 Where public health investigations have occurred in the past—such as the use of the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury in 2018—these have been carried out by Counter Terrorism Policing.36
Yet the overlap between different agencies, and the stepping in of security and intelligence services to deal with public health emergencies, can come with issues. For instance, national security and law enforcement agencies are often known for their secrecy and tend to limit the involvement of other groups in their efforts.37 Non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and other disaster agencies tend to have comparatively porous borders: they use volunteers, ask external agencies to participate in decision making, and also share information with outside agencies. Research by Aslak Eide et al., for example, reveals that even with collaborative sharing of information, further challenges include communication within and across agencies, especially regarding the lack of a common language, organizational jargon, and shared terminology across agencies.38 As such, oversight mechanisms will need to be in place to ensure that the involvement of security and intelligence apparatuses are temporary, and in line with civil liberties. Two examples of this are in the retention of DNA of terrorist suspects during a time of emergency (when the retention of such material is often extended), and in increased powers given to the police to monitor civilians.
As countries ease lockdown restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19, a trade-off for the liberty of free movement may be greater accessibility of civilian data. In at least 23 countries, dozens of ‘digital contact tracing’ apps have been downloaded more than 50 million times. Authorities in the United Kingdom and other countries, meanwhile, have deployed drones with video equipment and temperature sensors to track those who have broken lockdown restrictions by being outside their homes.39 The United Kingdom has also decided to break with growing international consensus; its pending coronavirus contact tracing app is intended to be run through centralized British servers rather than a decentralized server from an existing technology company such as Apple or Google.40 Unlike a decentralized approach where such data would be anonymized and protected (through an opt-in privacy option, where the phone periodically changes its ID), the NHS has been keen to stress that it will protect people’s privacy, despite granting itself real-time location tracking. Other ideas being considered include geolocation tracking of people using data from their phones, and facial recognition systems to determine who has come into contact with individuals later tested positive for the virus.41 Such methods have raised concerns around ‘surveillance creep,’ where intrusive powers are expanded or data is used to prosecute for a range of crimes. Data used to build predictive or preventative computer models around the COVID-19 outbreak, therefore, comes with various issues, the most important of which surround privacy and accuracy. Here, past experiences with collection of data around prevention of terrorism can offer some lessons learned.
One potential reward in treating public health as a national security issue is improving biological security. The threat can take the form of bioterrorism, as was the case with the anthrax threats that followed the 9/11 attacks in the United States, or white powder contents that have been sent to MPs in the United Kingdom on many occasions.42 Elevating health to a top-tier national security concern, and the national-security concern over bio-terrorism to a top-tier national health concern, could lead to a more coordinated and better-funded effort to counter both future pandemics and bioterrorism. There has already, to some degree, been a joined-up approach between protecting against natural and nefarious biological threats. To counter this risk, pandemic preparedness departments in the United States and the United Kingdom, such as bio preparedness within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive materials (CBRNE) within U.K. policing, work to understand the employment of bioweapons as security risks. While it is difficult to predict whether a nation-state, a state-sponsored terrorist, or an autonomous group would use a biological weapon, experts have argued that such an event “is both feasible and becoming more likely,” and preparedness is an essential component in both deterrence and management.43 Preparation for a bioterrorist attack, therefore, can mirror the preparation required to combat and respond to public health emergencies resulting from infectious diseases. Moreover, it is possible that measures taken to protect and mitigate against the impact of naturally occurring infectious viruses could reduce vulnerabilities to lab-engineered pathogens, and vice versa. In April 2020, when discussing the next pandemic that could follow COVID-19, Bill Gates stated, “Most of the work we are going to do to be ready for Pandemic Two … are also the things we need to do to minimize the threat of bioterrorism.”44
The overlap between biological security and terrorism takes two forms, as acknowledged in the 2018 U.K. Biological Security Strategy. The first is the importance of preparing for high-impact terrorist risks, including those using biological agents, something which is covered extensively in the United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy CONTEST.45 The second is the risk that disease outbreaks and pandemics, which may begin overseas, can affect national security by creating ungoverned spaces in which terrorism and criminality can flourish.46 For accidental and deliberate biological risks, a critical element in preparedness is therefore the work undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO) to control access to hazardous biological substances in the United Kingdom. More overlap between preparedness against a deadly pathogen and preparedness for a pandemic is included in the vision set out in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Global Health Security and U.K. Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy, the National Counter-Proliferation Strategy to 2020, and the U.K. Influenza Preparedness Strategy.47 Security strategies have focused on reducing the vulnerability of systems that are vital, including interlinked critical infrastructure such as transportation, electricity, and water. A number of ‘pandemic preparedness’ initiatives that employ proactive tools include disease surveillance programs to detect the onset of an unanticipated diseases, the smallpox vaccination program (developed to immunize first responders against a bioterrorist attack), investment in biotechnology to develop drugs and vaccines against anthrax and other select agents, and contracts between governments and drug companies to guarantee adequate vaccine supplies in the case of deadly outbreaks.48
This article has illustrated how the COVID-19 crisis has exposed gaps in pandemic response mechanisms, some of which are filled by existing national security apparatuses and defense systems: either through creating a model for preparedness that can then be employed in responding to a public health emergency, or by meeting resource constraints directly. The current priority of defense budgets on preparing for inter-state war, rather than meeting a more holistic definition of national security to include health security, has meant that certain areas of risk management and pandemic preparedness on a national level can still be improved. Nonetheless, this article has examined how certain counterterrorism mechanisms, such as the United Kingdom’s recently announced threat level system and broader protection of critical infrastructure and crowds (‘Protect’ under the national counterterrorism CONTEST strategy), have been employed to respond to COVID-19. It has also highlighted the broader implications of defense and health priorities overlapping, creating a synergy between public health and national security comes with a unique risk/reward matrix. On one end, there could be risks to civil liberties. On the other, potential rewards in overlapping health and security frameworks include potential feedback loops in preparing for combined public health emergencies and security issues in the form of pandemics and bio-terrorism. CTC
Nikita Malik is the Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think-tank based in Westminster, London. Follow @nixmalik
[a] The sentence for dangerous terrorist offenders would be increased to a 14-year minimum jail term and up to 25 years spent on licence (supervision under parole) for terrorists, under the new Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill introduced in 2020. “CTP Welcomes New Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill,” Counter Terrorism Policing, May 20, 2020.
[b] The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) is based in MI5’s headquarters in London.
[c] From 1970 to 2017, the United Kingdom suffered 3,395 deaths as a result of terrorism, according to the Global Terrorism Database. For more, see Ashley Kirk, “How many people are killed by terrorist attacks in the UK?” Telegraph, October 17, 2017. Since 1970, Northern Ireland has seen the most terrorism-related deaths in the United Kingdom. Statistics on COVID-19 related deaths are taken from the NHS and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). For more, see “COVID-19 Daily Deaths,” NHS Website. See also Robert Booth and Pamela Duncan, “UK coronavirus death toll nears 50,000, latest official figures show,” Guardian, June 2, 2020.
[d] Similarly, U.S. President Donald Trump has referred to himself as a “wartime president” and labeled the virus an “invisible enemy,” as if referring to insurgents. See ‘‘‘Invisible enemy’: Trump says he is a ‘wartime president’ in coronavirus battle – video,” Guardian, March 23, 2020.
 Ibid., p. 49.
 “Coronavirus: action plan,” March 3, 2020.
 Sally Weale, “Coronavirus: why are UK schools closing and what does it mean for parents?” Guardian, March 20, 2020; Nick Triggle, “Coronavirus: What next in the UK coronavirus fight?” BBC, March 23, 2020.
 “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Centre,” Public Health England and “New National Rail security campaign starts today: ‘See it. Say it. Sort it,’” British Transport Police, November 1, 2016; Nikita Malik, “How Can Lessons Learned From Countering Terrorism Assist In The Fight Against COVID-19?” Forbes, March 20, 2020.
 This is the Coronavirus Act 2020, available at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/7/contents/enacted
 “COVID-19 response scrutinised to ensure human rights are upheld,” UK Government website, March 19, 2020.
 Douglas Barrie, Nick Childs, and Fenella McGerty, “Defence spending and plans: will the pandemic take its toll?” International Institute for Strategic Studies, April 1, 2020. See also “Considerable financial resources have been devoted to pandemic influenza preparedness planning at the federal and state levels, however, resources at state and local levels may be inadequate to implement a robust preparedness plan,” in Philip Blumenshine, Arthur Reingold, Susan Egerter, Robin Mockenhaupt, Paula Braveman, and James Marks, “Pandemic Influenza Planning in the United States from a Health Disparities Perspective,” PubMed Central, May 2008.
 Ken Klippenstein, “Exclusive: The Military Knew Years Ago That a Coronavirus Was Coming,” Nation, April 1, 2020; George Monbiot, “What does ‘national defence’ mean in a pandemic? It’s no time to buy fighter jets,” Guardian, April 8, 2020.
 Jonathan Wentworth and Mike Stock, “Evaluating UK natural hazards: the national risk assessment,” UK Parliament Post, April 24, 2019; Bill Gardner and Paul Nuki, “Exclusive: Exercise Cygnus warned the NHS could not cope with pandemic three years ago but ‘terrifying’ results were kept secret,” Telegraph, March 28, 2020.
 Matt Hancock’s speech, “We are in a war against an invisible killer and we have got to do everything we can to stop it” on “Controlling the spread of COVID-19: Health Secretary’s statement to Parliament,” UK Government website, March 16, 2020.
 Matthew Smith, “Majority of Brits support introducing ID cards,” YouGov. The poll in 2018 would cover 2017, Britain’s “year of terror,” where five terror incidents occurred. See Alan McGuinness, “Britain’s year of terror: Timeline of attacks in 2017,” SkyNews Online, September 15, 2014.
 “Coronavirus: Man jailed for police officer cough assault,” BBC, April 7, 2020; “Extremist groups encourage members to spread coronavirus to police, Jews: FBI alert,” abc7News, March 23, 2020.
 See, for example, Christian Enemark, “Law in the time of anthrax: biosecurity lessons from the United States,” J Law Med 17:5 (2010): pp. 748-760. See also, ICRC IHL Database Customary IHL, “Practice Relating to Rule 73. Biological Weapons.”
 Anderson and Adey.
 Aslak Eide, Ida Haugstveit, Ragnhild Halvorsrud, Jan Skjetne, and Michael Stiso, “Key challenges in multiagency collaboration during large-scale emergency management,” Am I for crisis management, international joint conference on ambient intelligence, 2012.
 Thomas V. Inglesby, Tara O’Toole, and Donald A. Henderson, “Preventing the Use of Biological Weapons: Improving Response Should Prevention Fail,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 30:6 (2000): pp. 926–929. See also Graham Allison’s comments that “terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon” in Andrew Howard, “The Pandemic and America’s Response to Future Bioweapons,” War on the Rocks, May 1, 2020.