Published On: October 28, 2021

The Chief Executive of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, writes for the National Preparedness Commission about the importance of influencing the National Resilience Strategy and Civil Contingencies Act review.

What’s in your emergency grab-bag? This is a question the British Red Cross often asks of the public. We encourage people to consider in advance what they would need most as they run out the door before a flood takes hold. In the heat of an emergency, you may remember your phone but you might leave other things you wish later you hadn’t like the charger, insurance details or medication.

Emergency response is very much like a grab-bag. In a crisis, you want to be able to lay your hands quickly on tools that will help you – plans, frameworks, guidance, all based on well thought out laws. You don’t want to be building the plane while flying it: in other words, creating the legal and policy framework you need in the midst of the response.

The contents of your grab-bag need updating every so often too. Go back a few decades and mobile phones and chargers would not have been at the top of your household emergency list. The same goes for policy and legislation.

Two decades ago, a series of major emergencies led to the legal milestone of the Civil Contingencies Act (2004). It successfully rationalised and modernised existing laws and guidance concerning the preparation and response to a wide range of possible emergencies. However, significant UK emergencies – in 2017 there was the Grenfell Tower fire, the Manchester Arena bombing, and the London Bridge attack – and today the global coronavirus pandemic have brought into sharp relief the need for an urgent policy and legal refresh that addresses the human impact of crises.

To deal with the pandemic, the UK Government introduced the Coronavirus Act (2020) and used existing public-health legislation rather than the Civil Contingencies Act. The situation was uniquely messy and overwhelming, with many governments worldwide resorting to similar new emergency laws. However, the pandemic exposed gaps in the UK’s emergency response structures and raises questions on the adequacy of current legislation. Reflecting on lessons from the past 18 months and looking forward to the upcoming National Resilience Strategy review and CCA review, there is more work to do. In particular, we would underline the scope to put the needs of people and communities at the heart of UK emergency response.

Our latest report Ready for the Future details how we can learn from the pandemic in order to respond to emergencies better, and ensure that together we can meet people’s crisis needs by adopting a human-centred lens.

Postcode lottery

Our report found that the UK’s emergency response structures and legislation need to be strengthened and more consistent to meet people’s needs better. What support is available can be a postcode lottery and more could be done to include the work of the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) in emergency response. The needs of people and their communities in an emergency are diverse and varied, and likely to range from immediate practical needs such as food or shelter, psycho-social support, information and advice. Timescales must shift from the immediate fallout to giving people the care and support they need to get themselves back on their feet both quickly and in the long term.

What’s coming next?  

What other emergencies are on the horizon? As we look back to learn lessons from recent events, we must also face future and current risks such as climate change and extreme weather. If you are working in emergency response and not looking at climate change, you will not see the full picture. One of the recommendations from our report is to review and update the National Risk Register and develop strategies for climate-risk resilience, response and recovery. All these things go hand in hand.

Who’s doing what?

Current roles and responsibilities at both a local and national level can at times be unclear. There is an opportunity here to provide clarity alongside preparation, improve cross-government working and the scrutiny process.

Establishing a National Resilience Planning Board would bolster operational relationships between the government and its partners. Forming a Civil Contingencies Select Committee and a Civil Contingencies Advisory Group would improve scrutiny processes.

The quality of preparation arrangements varies across the country, with reduced capacity and resourcing being a problem at the level of the Local Resilience Forum, which can lead to unclear accountability mechanisms and weak quality assurance. To improve this, increased investment and improved planning standards would help emergency responders know what their role is, who to engage with, and who is most at risk when an emergency strikes.

Time to get this right

We have two moments on the horizon to turn the experiences of the pandemic, and other emergencies, into change: the upcoming National Resilience Strategy, and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 review which is due by Spring 2022.

In announcing the National Resilience Strategy, the then Paymaster General said that we must see resilience as part of our wider levelling up ambition, and that we must ask ourselves challenging questions about how we ensure these ambitions. Bolstering UK resilience is considered a key priority for the Prime Minister and this government, and resilience, at all levels of society, is seen as more important than ever.

However, what we consider is missing from this analysis is a truly human-centred approach to tackling UK resilience. In our response to the National Resilience Strategy, we have highlighted the need to put people at the heart of definitions and strategies related to resilience. We also need to recognise the impact and risk of crises are not the same for everyone. Societal inequalities must be factored in, and communities need to be consulted and involved in creating solutions. The Civil Contingencies Act, or any equivalent legislation underpinning future emergencies, must meet people’s needs no matter the emergency or background.

There is no silver bullet for ensuring this. It will take hard work, continued review and collective action. But there is good work happening now, and people who are passionate about making this work better for everyone. Our report includes expert interviews, setting out the various ways in which local and central government, responders and supporting organisations such as the VCS can meet these needs.

We hope the combined recommendations from the British Red Cross, as well as those from the VCS Emergency Partnership, National Preparedness Commission and others, are taken on board. If together we can level up and enhance preparation arrangements across the UK, better engage communities and improve co-ordination across central and local governments and partners, we will be well on the way to a creating a much improved collective ‘grab-bag’ of tools we all need to put people and their communities at the very heart of emergency response.

See BRC website here.

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