Five years on from Grenfell and the 2017 terror attacks, we must put survivor learnings front and centre.
Thelma Stober is a survivor of the 7/7 London bombings, Deputy Lieutenant for Greater London, and Co-Chair of the Grenfell Memorial Commission. She is also a Trustee of the National Emergencies Trust and chairs its Survivors Advisory Forum. In this article, Thelma shares her insights and experience as a survivor and how survivor learnings must inform how we respond to future emergencies to better support those affected by them.
Five years ago this month, the UK was in the midst of a series of unimaginable events that changed many thousands of lives forever. It seems almost unfathomable now that in 2017 the terror attacks in London and Manchester, and the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, could cause so much suffering and loss within just a matter of weeks.
For those caught up in these events, and for their loved ones, this chapter of our recent history is still acutely felt. The Inquiries for the Manchester Arena attack and Grenfell Tower fire are still ongoing. Thousands of families are being forced to relive those tragic events so that society can learn from, and act on, the important lessons that they have created, including:
- The need for better resilience frameworks that facilitate complex sets of stakeholders to come together at speed.
- The need for robust training and crisis exercises for those finding themselves at the forefront when the worst happens.
- The need to champion the kind of street-level community support catalysed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and which could be key to creating more resilient local communities in the face of future disasters.
Above all, we need to put survivors and their loved ones at the centre of all decisions. As I know only too well from my own experiences as a survivor of the 7/7 bombings, those whose lives are upended by disasters face incredibly complex needs, ranging from physical and psychological, to practical and financial. Now is the time to really understand and account for these; both within current resilience-building efforts and during future emergency responses.
It was admirable that the National Resilience Strategy call for evidence last year was open to the public. I wonder though how many survivors of emergencies were aware of this, and how many who knew actually responded themselves, or even know there is a new strategy? How much stronger could it be if they did? We would all accept that the response to any disaster must be tailored to the actual emergency. For example, people affected by serious flooding may not bear any physical scars, but the emotional ones can be long-lasting and may require support long after more practical considerations are addressed.
Within the UK charity sector, the National Emergencies Trust is committed to survivor-led learning and change. Conceived by the Charity Commission and co-created with sector peers and emergency survivors like myself, the Trust launched in 2019 as a direct response to the learnings identified after the Grenfell Tower fire, and terror attacks in London and Manchester. Hundreds contributed to its 2019 Survivor Consultation, and today its Survivors Advisory Forum, which I am privileged to Chair, guides the charity’s work.
Members of the Survivors Advisory Forum inform and shape the Trust’s strategies and processes. With their unique lived experience of past emergencies, they bring complexities and nuances that they have had to navigate and could easily be overlooked.
As an example, survivors and loved ones stress the value of immediate financial assistance in the aftermath of emergencies, which has proven to be a lifeline to those affected. However, they also stress that not all such assistance is equal. For instance, Croydon-based survivors of the 2011 riots received vouchers for a local supermarket more than a mile away from their lost homes. Many had lost all their possessions and had no means to get there. Meanwhile, others were so traumatised by what they had experienced that they could not bear to leave their local area. In this instance, while the vouchers were extremely well-intentioned, they were not the most practical or compassionate approach.
Beyond this immediate assistance, more substantive financial support is also vital as survivors focus on their recovery and rebuilding their now-changed lives. Emergency survivors and loved ones tell us about the complex web of needs they face long after the news headlines have subsided. For example, the need to reimagine family life after the sudden tragic loss of loved ones; the long-term financial hardship as a consequence of individuals being unable to work; and managing the psychological wounds that cannot be seen but are still deeply felt many years later.
In fact, one of the insights from the Survivors Advisory Forum has been the need to pay particular attention to psychological support for children and young people affected by disasters, who have historically been overlooked or underserved. It is this survivor insight that has led to the Trust’s support for a unique research project designed by and for young Manchester survivors, in partnership with Lancaster University. This study is led by Dr Cath Hill, a social worker and survivor of the Manchester Arena attack, along with her son. Launching this Summer, the ‘Bee The Difference’ project calls for young Manchester survivors to share what support they have received since 2017 and how helpful this has been. Insights will not only shape the Trust’s funding strategy, but hopefully inform wider societal efforts at a time when the mental health of young people is coming into sharper focus.
Then of course there is the need to support survivors’ physical rehabilitation. In my own case, when I lost part of my limb during the 7/7 attacks, the NHS was unable to offer me a prosthetic that matched my skin tone. After what I had been through, this was devastating. Fortunately, I was able to use a financial gift from the London Emergencies Trust to cover the cost of a matching prosthetic privately.
While a financial gift like the one I received cannot take away physical or psychological trauma that survivors or loved ones have experienced, it can make a life-changing difference to their outlook. We must ensure that such gifts are available to individuals as soon as they need them. In 2017 the UK public showed incredible generosity in the face of so much tragedy. Many millions of pounds were raised at high speed to help those affected. However, one challenge survivors cite is the time-lag between funds being raised, and funds being made available to them. For example, one survivor of the Westminster Bridge attack initially had to use his student loan to cover his physio.
Another hurdle survivors highlight is simply knowing what support is available. This is particularly pertinent where an individual is adversely affected, but sustains no physical injuries, e.g., as an onlooker. Without a hospital admission, or any contact with the police, those facing incredible trauma through what they witnessed or experienced can all too easily be ‘lost’ and miss out on valuable psychological support. This is a critical challenge to address and one that I suspect will only be solved through joined up thinking by the public, private and third sectors.
Where financial or other support is signposted, for example in the vicinity of an emergency or online, this communication must be accessible to all. It must be inclusive of appropriate languages, considerate of all literacy needs, and mindful of the digitally excluded. This is a live challenge the National Emergencies Trust is working through with its Equity Scrutiny Group and Tesco, one of its founding patrons, whose stores across the UK often play a vital role in providing local support.
The process of applying for funds is something survivors point to as one of the most painful of their lived experiences. In past emergencies, including those in 2017, people suffering immense personal trauma were required to make multiple applications for funds from different sources. Each new application brought a new opportunity to relive traumatic events and recount tragic circumstances. The Trust was created to remove this requirement in the future by offering one trusted place to give, and receive, funds. Since its launch, it has also secured two amendments to UK legislation to ensure that those who receive financial gifts from the National Emergencies Trust can continue to receive their state support.
Importantly, financial gifts are just one of the ways to support those affected by emergencies. Physical and psychological support services play a vital part too. For instance, young survivors of the Manchester Arena attacks have told us that access to free, local physio sessions proved invaluable. But of course, one consideration for response efforts is how to make these support services available to those not local to the location of the emergency. How do we help the young Manchester Arena attack survivor who travelled home to Wales the following day?
For the National Emergencies Trust’s part, it is building out a National Partners Programme with a growing number of national charities. By pre-agreeing care packages with partners which can be ‘switched on’ quickly should the need arise, the programme aims to ensure survivors and loved ones can access support from wherever they are. More broadly, I am pleased to see the launch of the UK Resilience Forum (UKRF), which I hope will help to bring about the nationwide approach needed to respond to localised emergencies in the future.
Engaging with survivors of past emergencies is vital for designing responses that can better support people affected by future ones. The tragedy at Grenfell has also shown the wider resilience community that we need to meaningfully engage with the local community and individuals impacted at the time. While good preparation is key, we know that each emergency and individual is different. By exploring potential needs, we will be better prepared when the worst happens again.
Until that time, my thoughts are with all those who have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and those affected by the events of five years ago. It is for you, and with you, that society must learn the lessons of the past to do better by survivors in the future. I sincerely hope that the National Emergencies Trust, with the continued support of resilience sector peers and the expertise of incredibly brave survivors, can prove to be a positive, lasting legacy to emerge from the unimaginable.