Risk Scenarios ... how well are we prepared?


The Cold War may be history, but with threats ranging from global warming to terror cells, Britain's emergency planners are now struggling to prepare for a greater range of potential disasters than ever before.

Since the outcry after the poorest citizens of New Orleans were left marooned in their ruined city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, emergency planning has been thrown " harshly " into the spotlight.

Since the passing of the Civil Contingencies Act, the UK's emergency planning procedures have been updated. Local authorities, now under a statutory duty to prepare emergency plans, have dusted down their Cold War command centres  "often nuclear-proofed basements in town halls" and areinstalling computer and communications systems, preparing 'risk registers' and creating a 'Local Resilience Forum' of representatives from emergency, health and other services.

Some have done more than others. 'I have to say my feeling is that our state of preparedness is variable across the country,' says a senior source. 'Many counties have had that sort of strategic co-ordination group for years anyway, so the Act is simply formalising what was already being done as best practice. But that hasn't happened everywhere. I won't name names, but some areas are just beginning to get [organised].'

In Whitehall, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, set up in 2001, is at the head of Britain's emergency planning operation. Its roles include 'horizon scanning' for possible threats to the UK. In a major emergency, the Civil Contingencies Committee is convened in the Cabinet Office briefing rooms " known as Cobra " and will usually be chaired by the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary. From here, a Government liaison team will be despatched to 'Gold Command' at the disaster scene (typically led by a senior police officer, this could include up to 20 representatives from emergency, health, local authority, transport, the utilities and other agencies). Below this are a Silver (tactical) Command and a Bronze (operational) Command, which deals with the disaster scene itself. For emergencies on a wider than local scale, Regional Civil Contingencies Committees will convene at government offices around the country.

Protocols have been agreed: all TV and radio broadcasters will transmit public information in an emergency (such as evacuation arrangements), in partnership with the Government's News Co-ordination Centre. If emergency food supplies are needed, many local authorities have arrangements with supermarket groups to open stores " instantly " on receipt of a code word and county identifier, via a 24-hour hotline. Supplies can be taken straight through the checkouts, and billed later.

More than 1,000 satellite phones have just been issued to emergency services and local authorities as an ultimate fall-back if all other communications become overloaded in an emergency, or fail. As in earlier civil defence legislation (in 1920 and 1948), the Civil Contingencies Act also allows the Government to assume emergency powers, in extreme situations and 'as a last resort'. These could include imposing travel and movement restrictions, requisition of property, banning specified assemblies, and use of the armed forces. (The powers cannot, however, be used against industrial action or strikes.)
Hurricane Katrina gave Britain's emergency planners a stark example of the likely recriminations if things go awry " and a stark example of what they may have to cope with if climate change brings the extreme weather that is predicted.

As it is obviously impractical to rehearse the evacuation of an entire city, the official reports on the New Orleans event may influence UK plans, according to Dr John Asquith, the chairman of the Emergency Planning Society, the UK's leading professional association in the field. The group has about 2,200 members from central and local government, emergency services, industry, utilities and government agencies.

'We're waiting to see what we may learn from Katrina,' says Asquith, who is the emergency planning manager for Worcestershire. 'It's an enormous undertaking to evacuate a city, but one of the early lessons seems to be that you must consider the most disadvantaged when making evacuation plans. In New Orleans, they were just left there. In an emergency, we must not neglect the most needy in society. That's a tremendously important lesson for us.'
Many other emergency plans have been rehearsed, though usually in 'table- top' exercises where communications and chains of command are tested, with no actual activity on the ground. One exception was the simulated poison-gas attack on a London Tube train at Bank station in 2003.

Cynics may have smelt a whiff of Government 'disaster PR' here. As cameras rolled and ministers watched from the Mansion House steps, a mere 60 police cadets tried to replicate a normally packed Tube train, and firefighters struggled in huge, cumbersome protective suits (so cumbersome, indeed, that in a real incident they are likely to be limited to 20-minute spells of duty in them).

And, last year, the Environment Agency staged a vast, national flood disaster exercise. A 'table-top' rehearsal, with 1,000 people and 60 services and agencies involved, it was broadly regarded as a success but threw up many problems: communications, uncertainty about who should do what, what role the military might play, where to find pumps, and more. But even with the best-laid plans, disasters are like that. They catch you out.


Scenario: In South-east Asia, a worker on a battery chicken farm catches normal influenza. At work, he is then infected with bird flu. The two combine, and the bird flu virus " type A, strain H5N1 " mutates into a form that can be passed from person to person. A global epidemic " a pandemic " begins. Within three months, it has reached the UK.

Risk level: High.

Possible damage: Up to a quarter of the population (about 14 million) could be affected. There is disruption to economy and society at all levels as millions stay away from work, either from fear of infection or to care for the sick. Emergency planners have been warned to envisage 25 per cent staff absences of a week or longer, in all businesses and services, over three months.

Possible fatalities: A potential 50,000 in England and Wales alone.

Likely response: On the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, the Health Secretary convenes the UK National Influenza Pandemic Committee (UKNIPC). The Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency begin efforts to contain the outbreak if it is localised, advising voluntary quarantine and targeting the area with the first of the 14.6 million courses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu ordered by by the Department of Health at a cost of pounds 180m. Enough for a quarter of the population " the World Health Organisation's recommended level " this merely reduces symptoms and may cut risk of infection. (A vaccine tailored to the exact strain could take six months to develop).

If the outbreak spreads, schools could be closed and mass gatherings such as football matches and rock concerts cancelled. The Government could invoke Part II of the Civil Contingencies Act to impose, for example, travel restrictions. Nurses and key workers are likely to be first in line for antiviral doses, followed by vulnerable groups. (The elderly, with possible residual immunity from past outbreaks, may be less at risk than younger people, as in the 1918-19 'Spanish flu' pandemic that killed 20-40 million worldwide and about 250,000 in UK, most of them under 60.) With cumulative 25 per cent staff absences, there are huge business continuity problems. A below-strength NHS is under pressure, and hospitals may be overwhelmed by up to 19,000 extra admissions a week at the peak. Temporary mortuaries are set up, with coroners' offices and crematoria also understaffed.

When flu strikes...

1918-19 'Spanish flu' Estimated deaths: 20-40 million (global) 250,000 (UK)
Most fatalities: Healthy adults aged 20-50
1957-58 'Asian flu' Estimated deaths: 1 million (global) 33,000 (UK)
Most fatalities: Very young and very old
1968-69 'Hong Kong flu' Estimated deaths: 1-4 million (global) 30,000 (England and Wales)
Most fatalities: Very old, and the sick


Scenario: A deep depression in the Atlantic causes winds exceeding 100mph to sweep across the UK (as in October 1987, the worst UK storm for nearly 300 years, with 15 million trees felled and a strongest gust of 122mph recorded in Suffolk).

Risk level: Localised, high; region-wide, low.

Possible damage: Structural damage to property, with hundreds of buildings uninhabitable. Power cables are down, leading to widespread power cuts. Transport is in chaos; lorries overturn on motorways and thousands of fallen trees block A and B roads. Passengers are stranded on trains as overhead cables are damaged. Shipping is in chaos, with smaller boats wrecked. There is great disruption to landline and mobile phone systems (masts destroyed or networks overloaded).

Possible fatalities: None to 18 (as in 1987 hurricane), from flying debris, falling trees and traffic accidents.

Likely response: All emergency services are called in, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and the Regional Civil Contingencies Committee are involved. Local authorities and the Highways Agency bring in all available contractors to clear roads. Cobra meets with utilities chiefs to discuss plans to restore services. Power and telephone companies bring in workers from across the country to restore supplies. (In the East Anglia storms of 2000, power workers from France were brought in to help repair the damage.)


Scenario: A Soviet-era nuclear power plant in Eastern Europe overheats and melts down. The explosion releases cloud of radioactive material (as happened at Chernobyl in April 1986). Wind spreads the radiation cloud across northern Europe and the UK.

Risk level: A meltdown incident in the UK is considered implausible; in Europe, within radiation reach of UK, the risk is low.

Possible damage: Radiation doses from Chernobyl to people in the UK were small compared to natural background radiation (Chernobyl dose; 0.03 millisieverts: natural annual background dose; 2.2 millisieverts). But farmers (beef, lamb, milk and food crops) may be seriously affected if land is contaminated (the highest risk is if heavy rainfall combines with the radiation cloud).

Possible fatalities: None (in the UK).

Likely response: By international agreement, the UK should receive warning of nuclear accidents abroad. The Environment Department also operates the Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network (Rimnet), in which instruments around the country detect abnormal radiation. Cobra convenes, there is a nationwide response; Environment Department assesses possible contamination of food and water supplies. In some areas, the sale of (say) sheep could be prohibited for several years. Evacuation of areas affected by radiation cloud is unlikely unless the incident is in northern Europe, close to English Channel.


Scenario: Further Western military and/or political intervention in the Middle East provokes producers to retaliate, slashing or banning fuel exports to the West. Pump prices soar. Hauliers blockade depots in protest at the Government's refusal to cut fuel duty.

Risk level: Middle East export ban, low; domestic blockade, medium.

Possible damage: Enormous economic damage; costs may run into billions of pounds.

Electricity could be rationed; possible nationwide power cuts. In winter, the elderly who rely on electricity for heating may be seriously affected. Civil disorder is possible.
Possible fatalities: None likely, unless there are power cuts in winter.
Likely response: Under European law, the UK must hold 67 days' reserve of refined oil products at normal daily consumption (current stocks are 80 days). But, in some areas during the recent fuel-blockade scare, panic buyers drained a week's supply in one day. The Department of Trade and Industry activates its Downstream Oil Emergency Response Plan to manage stocks. If the shortage is serious, the Energy Act 1976 includes emergency powers to ensure that essential infrastructure can operate. If the blockade continues, fuel is further restricted to essential users. In an extreme situation, emergency services, health workers and food distribution would get the last fuel. The Army could be called in to guard depots.


Scenario: Telecoms blackout in large urban area. Possible causes include: major power failure; fire in main cable trunking system (as in Manchester in March 2004, which left 130,000 phone lines dead and bank computers, cashpoints, mobiles and e-mail knocked out); mobile networks saturated, as in the 7 July London bombings; or hackers disable the telephone systems.

Risk level: Lower medium.

Possible damage: There is immediate risk to life if the 999 system is disabled, and huge disruption to business.

Possible fatalities: Unlikely.

Likely response: The police draft officers into streets to relay any emergency service requests by radio. The telecoms companies work to reactivate the system, perhaps by re-routing phone traffic. This is industry- led, but with the involvement of Cabinet Office-based 'telecoms resilience' specialists.


Scenario: Force 11 storms in the North Sea combine with high spring tides to create a surge that travels down the east coast of England. It reaches its peak at the Wash, overrunning flood defences on the East Anglian coast, as happened on 31 January 1953. This was the UK's worst natural disaster of the 20th century; 307 people died and 32,000 were evacuated. In the Netherlands, 1,800 people died.

Risk level: Localised, high; regional, medium.

Possible damage: Potential 'catastrophic' event with flooding over much of the Fens. Sea water runs from King's Lynn to Peterborough, perhaps even to the edges of Cambridge. Norwich and Great Yarmouth are badly affected. Livestock is drowned and crops are lost in the UK's main vegetable- growing area. Salt contamination means potentially lower yields for some time. Floodwater is polluted, posing severe health risks. Transport links and water, electricity and gas supplies are cut: their restoration is a major operation. Some hospitals may be out of action and thousands are left homeless.

Possible fatalities: None to 300.

Likely response: Immediate ministerial involvement. Cobra, the Civil Contingencies Committee, is convened, chaired by the Home Secretary. All emergency services are engaged in the rescue operation. The Environment Agency sets up a national incident room and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) opens a Regional Flood Management Division operations room. Local authority emergency plans are implemented, directing evacuees to safety. The Army helps with pumping floodwater and the RAF provides helicopters. Long-term power cuts cause huge disruption to the local economy, and it will take six to nine months to restore the area's high-voltage network. A full return to normality takes more than a year.


Scenario: 'In certain emergencies, the decision may be made to evacuate certain parts of central London, or Heathrow,' notes the London Resilience Strategic Emergency Plan. The aim is to 'evacuate the optimum number of people expeditiously and safely using the resources and infrastructure to hand. Preservation of life will be the overriding principle. Large- scale evacuation will always be a last resort...' A government or Cobra decision will be needed to invoke the plan, which will use private and all public transport.

Public transport: Public transport loading points (known as 'hubs') have been predetermined; people will be expected to walk to these locations. Trains, buses and Tubes will then run non-stop from these to unloading points ('heads') and immediately return empty to continue the evacuation. In a large-scale evacuation, the normal train timetable will be suspended and replaced by a Special Evacuation Service. Rail stations in outer London, and in Home Counties towns such as High Wycombe, have been identified as suitable for receiving evacuees as there are buildings nearby to use as reception centres.
Roads: High Capacity Emergency Access Routes (HCEARs) have been designated; private cars will be directed out of the capital on these, while emergency vehicles travel in. A specific traffic plan has been drawn up that could mean part or all of the M25 orbital motorway being dedicated for use by the emergency services and agencies involved in the evacuation. Police cars will be used as 'blocking vehicles' to enforce carriageway closures. Standard emergency service responses to road accidents will no longer apply.

Evacuees: Local authorities and the voluntary sector 'will provide the best possible care for evacuees within the restrictions of capacity and in overwhelming circumstances'. Initial reception will provide basic accommodation needs (somewhere to sit, drinking water and toilets) in an 'airport delay'- style operation for up to 48 hours after the incident.


Scenario: A suicide bomber detonates a van packed with explosives while passing, say, the Treasury or the Houses of Parliament.

Risk level: High. For a so-called 'dirty bomb' attack, medium high.

Possible damage: Huge disruption in central London, and probable national trauma at an attack on the heart of government.

Possible casualties/fatalities: None to 100, depending on blast force and time of attack.

Likely response: Police and emergency services life-saving and rescue respond, Cobra is convened, medical mobilisation, and so on. There is a full crime-scene investigation and evidence-gathering, and a major police and intelligence operation to identify the terrorist cell. Government departments have back-up outside a blast zone; their main network node may be out along with their premises, but they have the ability to function even after an attack.

If it is a 'dirty bomb' (where a conventional explosive, such as dynamite or Semtex, is packed with radioactive material), radioactive dust would spread over the surrounding area. Even so, fatalities would be more probable from the blast itself than from the dust cloud, which is likely to be low-grade. A cross-Government initiative called the Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) Resilience Programme aims to ensure that fewer lives will be risked or lost in the event of a terrorist or accidental CBRN incident. Under the CBRN programme, the Government has provided 360 mobile decontamination units around the country for use by ambulance and A&E departments. By February 2005, nearly 7,000 police officers had received special training to deal with CBRN incidents. In addition, 7,250 personal protection suits exist for key health workers, with an extra 2,500 additional personal protective suits stockpiled, and 4,400 new high- performance gas-tight suits for firefighters. Emergency medical equipment, strategically stored at sites around the country and available at 24 hours' notice, is also stockpiled.


Scenario: Minimal rainfall this winter and next spring is followed by a parched summer in 2006. The Met Office is already predicting a drier winter this year than average, to follow the driest spring and summer in southern England since 1976. Despite flooding in the north and west of the country last week, groundwater levels in much of England and Wales are already below the long-term monthly average, with reservoir levels still falling in southern England, where 3.4 million people remain subject to hosepipe or sprinkler bans. Reservoirs are at their lowest levels in the southern region, at just 43 per cent of capacity. Across England and Wales, overall capacity currently stands at 67 per cent.


Scenario: Malfunction, human error or terrorist action results in an airliner explosion over, or a crash in, London.

Risk level: Low.

Possible damage: Catastrophic destruction, but in a comparatively 'containable' area if the plane comes down intact. If it breaks up in the air, debris will cause less damage but over a much wider area. This is certain to be a traumatic event on a national scale, as was the Lockerbie disaster.

Possible casualties/fatalities: Impossible to predict, but likely to be between 100 and 500 (including passengers).

Likely response: An immediate police Gold Command scene, with all emergency services involved. The priorities are saving life, extinguishing fires, cordoning off the area and taking the injured to hospital. There are many burns cases, and injuries caused by falling metal and/or exploding fuel. A screened-off body-holding area may be set up. Cobra, the Civil Contingencies Committee, meets and there is Government assistance. Major incident plans are activated by the Department of Health and the NHS.

The accident scene may also be a crime scene, involving prolonged cordoning while police and air accident investigators gather evidence. Long-term shelter will probably be required even for residents whose homes are within the cordon but not destroyed. After evidence-gathering is complete, the local authority will remove debris and rebuild. Government assistance is likely.

Some arrangements may differ in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Thanks to the Emergency Planning Society for help in compiling some of these scenarios.

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