Could your phone save your life? Public emergency alerts amongst new measures to bolster UK resilience
Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission reflects on new national resilience arrangements announced recently by Kit Malthouse, MP.
As I write, most Government announcements are on hold awaiting the appointment of a new Prime Minister. This has delayed the publication of the National Resilience Strategy, originally expected earlier in the year. Visiting the Met Office last week, however, Kit Malthouse MP (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and self-described ‘Lead Minister for Resilience’) did announce ”new measures to bolster the UK’s resilience”.
The first of these was to confirm that a new system of public emergency alerts would be launched later in the year. This is based on the cell broadcast system that has been used for a while in some parts of the country by the Environment Agency to warn people of floods. The system works by broadcasting a message from mobile phone masts to any compatible phone or tablet in range. Crucially, the system does not collect phone numbers or track devices. The system is to be rolled out across the country from this Autumn. This is long overdue.
Similar technology has been used regularly in Australia, the United States, the Netherlands and elsewhere since 2012. It was even trialled successfully in North Yorkshire, Glasgow and Suffolk by the Cabinet Office back in 2013. Nothing happened for several years after these trials, although I did recommend further action in 2016.
Meanwhile, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Iceland all adopted similar systems. In 2018, while in Portugal, I received a warning alert on my phone about the danger of forest fires in the area – delivered to me in English! The following year, thousands of lives were saved in India when 2.6 million text alerts were sent to residents in the path of Cyclone Fani.
According to a BBC report, the UK system will give highly localised warnings of flooding, fires, extreme weather and public health emergencies. In addition, it says “terror attacks could also be added to the list of potential scenarios to trigger a message.” This last suggestion is somewhat concerning without the system being further refined. As I pointed out earlier this year, “a cell broadcast system triggers a loud alarm … For anyone hiding from an attacker, the alert will create a very real and significant risk of their location being revealed.”
Some countries (such as France, the Netherlands and Australia) have adopted location-based SMS alerting, as a supplement to cell broadcast. This can be silenced by someone following ‘Run, Hide, Tell’ advice. It also has several other advantages. In particular, it allows much more precision in targeting messages. It is to be hoped that the UK quickly moves to such hybrid functionality. Nonetheless, it is pleasing that progress is at last being made.
The second announcement made by the minister was a series of changes to the Civil Contingencies Secretariat – the Cabinet Office’s emergency planning and response team. He described this as “shaking up how we prepare and respond to emergencies”. The objective of ‘strengthening the effective resilience capability we already have’ is laudable.
The intention seems to be to split the existing functions in two. One part will become linked to other COBR functions to lead the government’s response to acute emergencies. Separately, work on longer term planning will be driven forward by a National Resilience Framework Team based in the Cabinet Office’s Planning and Analysis Secretariat. This will ‘take a deeper look at the government’s approach to risk and how it is mitigated as well as collecting and analysing live data to improve future responses in emergencies.’
The details of how this work will no doubt emerge shortly. We will need to see these changes in the context of the National Resilience Strategy when it finally sees the light of day.
Earlier this year, the Commission published its own independent review of the civil contingencies’ arrangements. This concluded that the resilience framework set up following the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act has served the country well and provides a sound basis for emergency preparedness, response and recovery. In particular, the reviewers were impressed by the quality of work in the Resilience Partnerships at local level, but they warned that the arrangements have suffered strategic neglect over the last decade. In their view, there are some serious weaknesses that need to be addressed as we move into an increasingly uncertain future of global volatility and insecurity.
This is the context in which the changes announced need to be considered. Whilst long-term planning to reduce major risks is important, this needs to be closely aligned to planning for the response to nearer-term hazards – otherwise we risk divergent approaches. There is also a danger that the latter function may got lost in wider Cabinet Office responsibilities for planning and analysis as a result of the expected changes in responsibility. It is to be hoped therefore that National Resilience Framework Team will be properly resourced and that this resource is ring-fenced.
The National Resilience Strategy is expected to endorse the concept of a whole-of-society approach to resilience. This means that every level of government (central, regional and local), every business and every organisation, as well as every household, will have to play their part in building resilience. This requires partnership and collaboration. Business and civil society need to be central to the Strategy, with properly-assigned responsibilities and accountability for delivering against it The minister’s announcement on public emergency alerts clearly illustrates this point – the funding and infrastructure needed to enable such a system is largely wasted if businesses, community groups and households do not know their role in responding to those alerts. Planning and good communication are vital to each organisation and individual knowing what they can expect to happen when such an alert is received, and what facilities or support may be available to them, or expected from them.
Implementation of the National Resilience Strategy will not happen on its own. The new structures replacing the Civil Contingencies Secretariat will need to support and facilitate it, working alongside local government and the Resilience Forums. All of this will need to be properly resourced and will require a step change in commitment from central government. We look forward to the National Resilience Strategy setting out how this is to be done, so that serious progress can be made towards realising the government’s aspiration of the UK becoming “the most resilient nation”.