Rhona Smith: ‘Building Back Better’ – obligations behind the soundbite

Whilst PM Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden may dispute who first used the tag ‘Build Back Better’ in the context of COVID-19 recovery planning, the phrase is, as one journalist did note, actually from United Nations documentation on disaster reduction and risk management.  The 2015 UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction  sits alongside the UN Sustainable Development Goals under the United Nations’ Agenda 2030. It is axiomatic that the pandemic has been a disaster, not least for those whose lives were lost and those whose lives and livelihoods changed dramatically. Planning for recovery is vital. This post considers the international framework within which all governments should be planning to Build Back Better in the months and years ahead. It examines the obligations incumbent on the UK government, indeed all governments, to ‘Build Back Better’.

The Sendai Framework is centred around four priorities: understanding disaster risk; strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk; investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience; and enhancing disaster preparedness  for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.  States agree therein that

[i]t is urgent and critical to anticipate, plan for and reduce disaster risk in order to more effectively protect persons, communities and countries, their livelihoods, health, cultural heritage, socioeconomic assets and ecosystems, and thus strengthen their resilience.

(para 5)

To do so, it focuses on the adoption of measures which address the three dimensions of disaster risk (exposure to hazards, vulnerability and capacity, and hazard’s characteristics) in order to prevent the creation of new risk, reduce existing risk and increase resilience. Biological hazards explicitly include epidemics and pandemics and so the global reach of COVID-19 brings the current pandemic squarely within the Framework. Vulnerability and capacity are linked to health as well as socioeconomic impacts, the latter of particular salience with faltering economies decimated by repeated ‘stay at home’ edicts. Resilience is clearly yet to be determined for most states, with prognoses changing as vaccines are approved for use and the WHO COVAX programme for providing vaccines to developing and less developed states begins.

The pandemic can be briefly contextualised in terms of the four Sendai Framework priorities.  First, disaster risk is understood to include pandemics and zoonotic diseases. COVID-19 is therefore, in abstract, a known risk. The UK has acknowledged such a risk in its National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies which includes public health emergencies. This was superseded in December 2020 by a new National Risk Register, embedding a case study on COVID-19.  Second, at the time of the identification of COVID-19, UK Government preparedness centred on its pandemic flu planning, that being deemed the UK Government’s top non-malicious threat. Plans drew on the World Health Organisation’s 2011 evaluation of the country’s health crisis preparedness, and indeed had been tested in an operational exercise in 2016. Third, there is evidence of some investment in disaster reduction to mitigate the impact of an influenza style pandemic. Health was key with the then Department of Health the focal point of the government’s preparedness, planning and risk mitigation activities. On 3 March 2020, the Government published a specific coronavirus action plan, claiming ‘[t]he UK is well prepared for disease outbreaks, having responded to a wide range of infectious disease outbreaks in the recent past, and having undertaken significant preparedness work for an influenza pandemic for well over one decade’ (para 3.2). This brings us to the fourth priority, learning from the experience and enhancing disaster preparedness, building back better in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Disaster preparedness is symbiotic with disaster response. 

Building back better means maximising the recovery and building resilience. That there are lessons to be learned is inevitable, the wide range of parliamentary inquiries but one sign of this. ‘Unprecedented levels’ of public spending have been deployed to support people, including feeding those deemed most high risk and shielding, providing safe shelter for people in street situations, repatriating those overseas, contributing salaries for those precluded from working due to the ‘stay at home’ edicts or requested to self-isolate, and creating, procuring and delivering vaccinations at an unprecedented level in peacetime. Certainly the scale of work facing the UK’s Governments is vast. Woods draws broader parallels with the actions taken after the second world war to rebuild devastated economies and disparate populations. The reality of the pandemic has involved unprecedented impacts on the economy, livelihoods and human rights. These appear not to have been anticipated by the Government; the Public Accounts Committee was ‘astonished’ that economic planning commenced just before schools and many businesses closed their physical premises. Whilst the government initiated extensive economic support packages to bolster impacted industries and secure (hopefully) jobs, what will happen in the medium term is not yet clear. Early indications point to increased unemployment, slowing economic growth (or recessions) and a range of psychosocial problems yet to be comprehensively identified and addressed.

Many have already commented on the human rights and constitutional law implications of the UK Government response to 2020’s SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Mallory has discussed the PPE issues, Bowen  the duty to investigate deaths, Halliday et al the ‘lockdown’ rules and authors including Hinks, English and Greally, the legislative response and challenges thereto. A range of mechanisms will be deployed to seek to hold the governments accountable for decisions taken and strategies implemented during the pandemic. Within the governance framework, there are reports from the National Audit Office and Parliamentary Committees on various aspects of the response, and further reports and inquiries in process. One interesting contemporaneous development is the private members’ Wellbeing of Future Generations (No.2) Bill.  As Thomas notes, this draws on the 2015 Welsh legislation. It is currently at the Committee stage in the House of Lords.  Whilst ostensibly linking to the UN sustainable development goals, the bill focuses on deemed wellbeing goals including a more prosperous, resilient, healthier and equal UK (clause 5, table 1). Although the fate of the Bill is as yet undecided, if enacted, it could contribute to a stronger recovery.

Murray, writing for Public Health England following the adoption of the Sendai Framework in 2015, concludes

[g]iven public health’s long tradition of using science as its underlying knowledge-base, we also hope that the Sendai Framework (working within the commitments agreed) will help to embed the importance of science and technology in disaster risk reduction.

Few in the UK have been left in doubt that in 2020-21 the Government claims it is ‘being led by science’ in its pandemic response.  What is perhaps less clear are the drivers behind the Government’s economic response – both the individual and business support schemes, the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme for summer 2020 – and any future economic stimuli. The Sendai Framework indicates that states should

promote the cooperation of diverse institutions, multiple authorities and related stakeholders at all levels, including affected communities and business, in view of the complex and costly nature of post-disaster reconstruction.

(para 33 (i))

Just as the impact of the pandemic has been across sectors, so to the response must be multi-sectoral.

Building back better entails building resilience and strengthening recovery. On 3 March, the Prime Minister introduced ‘Build back better: our plan for growth’, proclaiming a need to ‘grasp the historic opportunity… to learn the lessons of this awful pandemic and build back better, levelling up across our United Kingdom and fixing the problems that have held back too many people for too long’ (page 6). Simultaneously, the 2021 Spring budget was laid before Parliament, aiming to provide a financial basis for recovery of the country’s struggling economy. The Chancellor heralded a three-point plan ‘to protect jobs and strengthen public finances’ by supporting families and businesses and establishing an investment-led recovery as well as strengthening public finances (necessary given the extent of Government COVID-19 spending). Centring a response on people would certainly reflect the tenor of the country’s human rights obligations as well as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. There should be no regression on socio-economic rights, rather they should be progressively realised with protection enhanced (ICESCR, Article 2). That means planning for ongoing support for health, reviewing options for continuing support for persons in street situations, rebuilding education provision for children and young people and ensuring many elements of the socio-economic support made available during the pandemic continues as and when necessary.  

Considering the wider context, the Sendai Framework links to the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), goals which link directly to the international human rights framework. The UK Government has listed policies which reflect SDG indicator 1.5.3 (on adopting and implementing national risk reduction strategies). That indicator is integral to the SDG target of building the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, reducing their exposure and vulnerability to, inter alia, economic, and social shocks and disasters. However, it is only Public Health England which has published relevant plans on the Sendai Framework, detailing in 2017 how resilience of the national health systems to pandemics is being achieved. There is more, much more, that the current UK Build Back Better plan could contribute across ministries and sectors, by aligning more closely with the Sendai Framework and, indeed, the SDGs.

Building back better may be a timely and catchy soundbite, but it is underpinned by  obligations on the Government to take concrete measures to build a stronger, more resilient, fairer society, redressing imbalances and shortcomings (further) exposed by the pandemic. Doing so will strengthen the country’s response to future pandemics and disasters as well as working towards realising its international obligations.

Rhona Smith is Professor of International Human Rights at Newcastle University, UK.

(Suggested citation: R. Smith, ‘‘Building Back Better’ – obligations behind the soundbite’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (10th March 2021) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))