Published On: December 7, 2023

Lord Toby Harris, Chair, National Preparedness Commission, has provided this update on the Resilience Framework Update, reflecting that whilst there has been progress there remains much more to do. Remaining challenges for the UK government’s resilience efforts include refining risk assessment, improving emergency alerts, and addressing coordination issues. Concerns also persist regarding targeted advice, public awareness, and the clarity of initiatives like the UK Resilience Academy.

The UK Government Resilience Framework published in December 2022 promised an Annual Statement to Parliament on civil contingences risk and the UK Government’s performance on resilience.  On 4th December, the first of these was published, as an ‘Implementation Update’.  This is welcome – not only has the promise in the UKGRF been honoured but also it was presented by the Deputy Prime Minister in an oral statement to the House of Commons – an indication of senior-level commitment.

The Update reiterates the Government’s commitment to a “whole-of-society” approach to resilience, but also talks about preparedness and response to emergencies needing to be on a “whole-of-system” basis – a clear recognition that it is not just the “resilience community” but that individuals, businesses and local communities need to be engaged as well.

Much of the Update reprises various announcements and events during 2023.  Notably, this includes the publication of the National Risk Register and the list of lead Government Departments – the NPC’s initial reaction to this is here. The new Register is an improvement on what has gone before, but it leaves out “chronic” or “slow-burn” risks and it is unclear how simultaneous and overlapping risks are to be addressed.  The Update promises that chronic risks will be reported on during 2024 and that further work will be done on overlapping risks (the Commission has some involvement with this).  There is also an acknowledgement of the significance of ‘business-as-usual’ risks with the recognition that the “the picture remains challenging with the NHS facing significant pressures.”  Finally, there is a reference to the “Catastrophic Impact Programme” although little detail is given as to what in practice is involved in this.

The Update warns that the aim of the Register “is not to capture every risk that the UK could face” but instead to identify a range of representative risks.  This emphasises what we have been saying about the importance of being threat-neutral (or “agnostic” as the Update phrases it) in terms of putting in place preparedness and mitigation responses.  However, a risk register in any other context would try to capture all of the risks that the entity might face, prepare for and mitigate.

Another issue with the Register is the question of who is intended to be the target audience.  It is not for the general public but instead is aimed at a “broad range of risk and resilience practitioners”.  The problem with this is the sheer breadth of those who might be expected to use it: small voluntary and community organisations planning for local responses right the way through to major voluntary organisations like the British Red Cross or St John Ambulance; and small businesses through to major national or international enterprises.  Each audience needs tailored, although consistent, advice on the risks they face and the response that might be appropriate. The Update acknowledges this (albeit subliminally) – with its references to “targeted action” and the need to “ensure that the full range of actors with a role in our national resilience are aware of and able to act on the risks we face” – that this is on the horizon.

The new Emergency Alerts service was tested nation-wide in April.  This too was welcome and long overdue.  We are told the system is now “fully operational”, but as is argued in the article “Will UK Police and Fire Services ever use ‘Emergency Alert’?” the system adopted is not necessarily the most flexible.  Moreover, a local alert responding to a geographically-contained emergency is still potentially hampered by being required to follow a cumbersome authorisation process.  Those managing the response at the scene have to seek permission from the relevant lead government department to apply to the Cabinet Office National Situation Centre for approval from ‘a Cabinet Office duty director’.

There is, however, clearly some welcome progress on issues we have previously identified within the machinery of government.  The new Resilience Directorate and the separate COBR Unit seem to be functioning well within the limits of their resources.  There is a new Resilience Sub-Committee of the National Security Council, although we are not told how often this meets.  But the aspiration is still limited with the “stated aim of a more coordinated and prioritised approach to investment in resilience within the government by 2030.”  At the risk of stating the obvious, 2030 is at least two General Elections away.

There is to be a survey of public perceptions of risk, resilience and preparedness to “inform how the government best engages with individuals about risk and preparedness”.  This is an important first step and recognises that risk, preparedness and resilience are three different but connected elements of a strategy.  It is also encouraging that this is to be an annual exercise so progress can be measured.  However, there is clearly much more that can be done in terms of public awareness.  The Update promises a “unified Government website” that will provide advice to citizens – perhaps similar to the Ready Scotland site that has existed since 2018 – although it is not clear how this will help those without ready access to the internet, or in an emergency where power supplies or the web are disrupted.  By contrast, in Sweden, there is a household booklet “If Crisis or War Comes” and in Finland the “Home Preparedness” brochure with useful tips for disruptions and a “72-Hour Emergency Kit”.

The Update also tells us that the National Exercising Programme “has been restarted” with two exercises in 2023 on a national power outage and a major terrorist attack. If you ask any emergency practitioner, they will emphasise the importance of regular training and exercising to build an equivalent of ‘muscle memory’.  This will inculcate preparedness, embed learning and build collaborative links between those who must work together in an emergency.  It is important that this programme is properly resourced and is not confined simply to those within government and the emergency services.

The Update promises that the new UK Resilience Academy (UKRA) will be core to delivering the whole-of-society approach, so that “all those who work on resilience have the capability and knowledge they need to play their part”.  Rightly, there seems to be an ambitious agenda being set.  The UKRA will not only cover government and government agencies, but also local resilience forums and partnerships, emergency responders, the voluntary and community sector, business, and the critical national infrastructure.  There will also be “tools for households and individuals.”  However, it is not clear how the agencies to whom the Academy’s work is being directed will be able to feed into the work.  There also seems to be nothing said about the role of education in schools, links with academia or within vocational training.  More importantly, will the scale implied by the ambition be matched with the resources needed to deliver what is required?

The Government’s approach is based on the principle of “prevention rather than cure” wherever possible with a focus on “what can be done before crises happen”.  This is an admirable aspiration.  We are promised that “the government is working to embed a focus on resilience throughout government policymaking, ensuring that prevention is built into decisions by design”.  This will require that Treasury guidelines for evaluating investments in the Green Book properly reflect this new preparedness and preventative emphasis. A traditional approach to cost accounting is inappropriate for the consideration of long-term and uncertain events, the occurrence of which is unpredictable.

However, this poses a fundamental question: i if this change in approach is to be a reality over the longer-term (as it must be), does this require a new framework perhaps along the lines of a National Resilience Act placing a duty on the relevant agencies to do this – as argued by Sir Oliver Letwin in his article for the NPC?

The Deputy Prime Minister in his foreword to the Update warned that “we must not stand still”.  That is clearly essential.  He goes on to say, “There is a lot more to come”.  We must certainly hope so.

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