Monday 6 May 2024

A Proposed Strategy to Advocate for Improved Civil Protection in the United Kingdom


National elections in the United Kingdom are likely to bring a change in the political complexion of the government. This short essay puts the case for coming together to put pressure on the new leadership to improve British civil protection. The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, alas largely negative, show that a good civilian system designed to protect the public against major hazards and threats can save thousands of lives and billions in losses and wasted expenditure. In a world characterised by rising levels of hazard and threat, improvement of the civil protection system is a necessity. It is something that needs to be dragged onto the political agenda as a matter of extreme urgency, a matter to be treated, at last, with the seriousness it demands.

In the future the UK faces a dramatic escalation in threats and hazards, but is it sufficiently prepared to deal with them? Climate change is increasing the magnitude and frequency of floods, storms, droughts, cold snaps and heatwaves. Hence there is potential for floods that equal or exceed those generated in 2008, storms that may be more disruptive than Arwen was in 2021, heatwaves greater than that of July 2022, and so on. Increasing dependency on critical infrastructure makes the country ever more vulnerable to proliferating technological failure, whether it is caused by cyber attack, sabotage or natural forces. Unplanned mass migration is now a common phenomenon throughout the world and the combination of climate change and political and military instability can only lead to greater spontaneous movements of populations. Non-seasonal influenza retains the potential to cause a pandemic on the level of that of 1918-1920. Influenza pandemics occur with a recurrence interval of about 40 years. In the meantime the world inches towards proliferating conflict and rising authoritarianism.

Safety measures at Europe's largest nuclear plant, Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine, hang by a thread. In the case of radioactive emission, it has been estimated that the top event could be 20 times greater than that of Chornobyl in 1986, which covered the entire continent with radioactivity. At a lesser scale, sabotage, targeted assassination, cyber attacks and political interference through social media are increasingly capable of causing runaway chains of adverse consequences.

It is common to find lags and inertia in civil protection. It is a field that is consistently neglected and that seldom attracts the level of investment required in order to protect society adequately against hazards, threats and disasters. Mami Mizotori, the Head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) stated in the mid-term report of the Sendai Framework that "progress [in implementing the SFDRR] has stalled and, in some cases, reversed". One of the UK's senior and most accomplished emergency planners recently remarked that "“our societal resilience is the lowest I have ever perceived”. Looking back at the inquiries and reports on large adverse events in the past, it could fairly be argued that no disaster has been managed well in the UK in the last quarter of a century. A consistent trait has been the failure to learn and implement lessons from past events, or indeed from good practice in other European countries.

The United Kingdom does not lack talent and expertise in civil protection. In addition, more than 60 universities teach and research on topics (hazards, risks, disasters, safety, security, etc.) that are pertinent to the field. However, the problem lies in the configuration of the system. In my opinion, the following issues need to be addressed.

Centrism versus devolution. The UK civil protection system is complex, unwieldy and top-heavy. A good system starts at the local level, as this is where expertise and capability are located. No matter how large a disaster is, it is a local affair because that is where the theatre of operations invariably lies. In the Covid inquiry Mr Hugo Keith KC described the system as "a bowl of spaghetti". The linkages between the component parts are unduly complex, but they also leave quite large areas bereft of clear indications as to who is responsible for them, especially when one is dealing with the relationship between central government and the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (and to a lesser extent the mayoralities of the metropolitan areas).

COBRA, the national 'nerve centre' for directing major emergency actions in the UK, is a relatively small entity that does not match up to the specifications of a well-endowed national emergency operations centre.

The Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 is of debatable value, as evidenced by the fact that it was in effect abandoned during the Covid-19 pandemic emergency. The risk here is that any amendment to or substitution of the Act will merely tinker with the works, rather than effecting the fundamental changes in the system that are needed.

The long-standing tendency to circulate civil servants from one post to another risks losing expertise in the practical administration of civil protection functions. Over the last 15-20 years the profession of emergency manager has tended to lose prestige and has failed to gain an adequate career structure such that expertise can better be built up in terms of human resources.

The regional tier. The devolved administrations and metropolitan mayoralities are the nearest Britain comes to having a regional tier of public administration. These entities lack the coherence of, for example, the 20 Italian regions or 25 Netherlands safety regions. In these countries responsibility for coordinating local emergency actions is delegated to the regions. This makes sense as the problems encountered at the local level are likely to vary from one part of the country to another. Wales has developed three regional emergency response coordination centres, but the rest of the UK is not following suit. Abundant experience from the rest of Europe shows that regional coordination of civil protection resources makes sense.

The local level. For years, local authorities have been starved of funds and resources.  As a result, many of them have done relatively little to develop emergency response capability beyond existing 'blue light' capabilities. With respect to these, the Fire and Rescue Service has also suffered contraction due to lack of funds. Good emergency response is nevertheless dependent on the calibre of local responses in terms of personnel, equipment, expertise and coordination.

The voluntary sector. In some countries, notably Germany, Italy and Australia, the voluntary sector is the backbone of national, regional and local civil protection. In Britain there has been some discussion of the possibility of founding a national civil protection corps, composed of volunteers. The reaction of the voluntary sector has been to reject this idea in favour of better integrating the existing voluntary organisations into the official structure of emergency response. The age of spontaneous voluntarism is well and truly over. Organised voluntarism must be fully incorporated into the civil protection system.

Culture and inclusiveness. There is a tendency for the UK civil protection system to be dominated by a para-military ethos that is far from inclusive. Civil emergency management is often considered to be an appropriate second career for former military and police officers. They tend to be middle-aged white males. Some of them have brilliantly made the transition, bringing with them very valuable skills, but others have perpetuated the military and para-military ethos, which is decidedly not appropriate to modern civil protection. Command and control are being replaced by coordination and collaboration. If civil protection is to work, it needs to be an artefact of participatory democracy, and it must be fully inclusive. References to women and girls, people with disabilities and ethnic and cultural minorities are totally absent from the current version of the National Resilience Framework and almost completely missing from the UK Risk Register. Worldwide, there is a vast amount of evidence that this is not conducive to good practice in civil protection. An example is the excoriating report produced by three eminent Japanese women after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear release, which highlights the deficiencies of a response system in which decision making is in the hands of elderly males.[1] The best solution to this problem is to promote inclusiveness in emergency preparedness at all levels.

Terminology. The word 'disaster' is seldom used in official UK civil protection parlance, yet how could one possibly call the Covid-19 pandemic tragedy a 'major incident'? Fire, flood, extremes of heat and cold, tempests, tornadoes, bombings, shootings, structural collapses, chronic contamination, infrastructure failure and transportation crashes are all features of recent British history and, where such events have had a profound impact, they deserve to be called disasters, and treated as such.

A strategy

Unfortunately, there is a very high likelihood that the UK will have to face major emergencies that are even more challenging than those of the post-War period so far. Within the limits of what can be achieved, governments have a duty to keep their citizens safe. In Britain there has been talk of innovation, for example in instituting a 'whole of society' approach and in making better use of academic expertise. However, in these respects there is little sign of change. Reports by the House of Lords, the National Preparedness Commission and other bodies, as well as various public inquiries, have drawn attention to the deficiencies of the civil protection system. Indeed, one might not classify it as a system at all, but rather a mere set of fragments of a system.

With a general election pending there is an opportunity to produce some strong advocacy for the development of a better civil protection system. The following are some suggestions for the improvement of the system:-

  • A national civil protection agency with a large, well-equipped coordination centre at the heart of government designed to act as the hub of a capillary system that reaches all parts of the country.

  •  A basic law (in place of the current Civil Contingencies Act) that defines the system at all levels and apportions the fundamental responsibilities at all levels. As clarity is essential, it should be written in plain English, not legalese.

  • A regional tier to coordinate local civil protection activities, with strategically placed regional emergency operations centres.

  • Empowerment of local authorities to have their own emergency managers and emergency operations centres, fully connected to the system in a capillary manner.

  •  Standardised,"all hazards" emergency planning methodology applied at all levels.

  •  Full incorporation of recognised voluntary organisations into the civil protection system.

  •  Qualified emergency managers, not the police, to coordinate emergency responses.

  •  Revision of the National Risk Register and UK Resilience Framework to remedy existing deficiencies (see above) and reflect the revised form of the system.

  •  Closer collaboration with European civil protection forces at the national and EU levels.

  •  An emphasis on understanding and reducing vulnerability rather than creating resilience, which is a less robust concept.

  •  To achieve a great improvement in the role of universities in educating and training emergency managers both as part of continuing education and for new entrants to the emergency planning and management profession.

  •  Ensure that the people who produce the plans are also the managers--i.e., the coordinators of emergency operations.

 A suggested strategy is as follows. In the light of a coming general election, we should:-

  •  convene interested parties

  •  organise a forum in order to debate the best strategy for advocacy

  •  endeavour to reach and record a consensus on the best strategy for reforming British civil protection

  •  produce two documents: a two-page open letter to the incoming Prime Minister and Home Office Minister and a white paper on what needs to be done, which provides more of the details.

[1] Domoto, A., M. Ohara and H. Hara 2011. Disaster risk reduction: a Japanese women's perspective on 3/11. Japan Women's Network for Disaster Risk Reduction, Tokyo, 17 pp.