Crises can strike at any moment – so how can government be ready?

Don’t assume you have time to prepare for a crisis, says disaster recovery expert Lucy Easthope
Photo: Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo

By Lucy Easthope

26 Jun 2024

There will be a lot of talk and a lot of expectation about any new government’s first 100 days. But the assumptions made about those days often blank out any curveballs. Recent history has demonstrated that any new cabinet will need to be ready to lead the country immediately through a crisis. My colleagues and I have some thoughts on that. We are emergency planners, to be found before, during and after the crisis but not always known about. I have become vocal about the fact that for decades there have been plans, planners and planning for emergencies throughout the civil service, and it’s time to bring it out from behind the curtains.

I am fiercely independent of government, but the people I spend the most time with are either working in local government or central government departments, readying us for everything from building fires and flooding to cyberattacks and volcanic ash clouds. And these crises can hit as soon as the polling stations close.

On the day Boris Johnson was elected as prime minister, UK emergency planners were already placing pandemic planning meetings into governmental diaries, as news from China became increasingly alarming. Theresa May was returned as PM in the 2017 election six days before a fire tore through Grenfell Tower in London and five days after a terrorist attack in London’s Borough Market. Just after the final details of a coalition government were thrashed out in 2010, a plane crashed in Libya with several nationalities on board, including two Britons. Tony Blair’s time as PM was peppered with major catastrophes, known in civil service folklore as the 4 Fs: foot and mouth, fire and fuel strikes, flooding; and the fourth F was the profanity uttered in Number 10 when yet another crisis hit. 

One of the extra dangers with a crisis that hits early on in the term is that neither new ministers nor their advisers will have had time to attend the disaster training offered by the Cabinet Office. So my strongest advice would be to prep for crisis on day one. The following are my suggestions for what that prep might look like.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Crucially, ministers and their advisers will need to understand the entanglement between emergency response and a changing climate. More floods, more fires, more storms and major disruption are on their way. Equally crucially, many of our risks on a national scale involve disruptions to gas, water and electricity; but research suggests there are high expectations of how quickly help will come, and of the benefits that might arise from precautions such as registering as vulnerable with power companies. In reality, there will be inevitable disruption that may cause considerable harm.

Domino consequences should also be considered. Volcanic ash quickly becomes a supply chain disaster, for example, if flights are interrupted. Emergency planners must be able to brief you on the worst case scenario, and not be limited to “only good news for the minister”. 

“Emergency planners must be able to brief you on the worst case scenario, and not be limited to ‘only good news for the minister’”

Advisers and ministers will need some knowledge of the terminology. The field of emergency planning and response marinades itself in code and jargon, which is not always helpful. But understanding key terms like “local resilience forum” – the geographically located way that we bring together all responders – will be useful. The role of JESIP – Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Programme – is also good to know. If the responders are using jargon, ask them for clarity.

Don’t expect too much from the myth of COBR – have faith in the civil servants around you, but it’s not a James Bond film. There are no screens with all the bad guys on, or cool gadgets. However, if your advisers in COBR say that something is a very bad idea, do listen to them; they know the bear traps. And aim to understand a lot more about the toll your data demands take on local government responders. It is just relentless. 

Look backwards. I have now seen several power transitions and one of the things that stuns me – not just with new governments but even with new Cabinets – is that they stubbornly refuse to open the old filing cabinets (or possibly protocols mean they can’t). Many of the lessons from the tragedies of the 70s, 80s and 90s are still valid, and the plans are good. Yet we have this habit of constantly reinventing the wheel, which is offensive to the families who went through so much and then worked with us for decades to try and prevent this happening to a new generation.

I would urge you to read up on the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and the supporting documentation. It has been chronically misunderstood. Emergency response at a central government level involves true cross-governmental-department liaison. The idea of a lead government department depending on the type of emergency is really important, but it is also really important to have alignment. You can’t learn all this in a few days, so engage with the idea of emergency planning as an area of continuous professional development and know who to ask.

Key points for briefing ministers

  • Feed in current verified information and uncertainties (what is not yet established); explain why things are not fixed, the reasons for uncertainties and the work ongoing with identified experts to plug any data gaps.
  • Be honest and direct when requesting resources and finances. Discuss money early on and log decisions in relation to recouping response expenses.
  • Re-brief as necessary.

Understand when to and when not to ask for military assistance. New ministers tend to conflate issues like security, resilience, defence of the realm, and preparedness. It is important not to assume that the military are there as a constant backup or to fix everything. There can be substantial downsides to deploying a military response to a civil incident. Understanding who does what is crucial.

Do not expect a situation that massively impacts British citizens only to happen in Britain. Disasters overseas can have serious ramifications, and so can the need to suddenly repatriate large numbers of people. Last summer’s wildfires saw a number of holiday companies step up alongside the FCDO. Evacuations from both Sudan and Lebanon in recent years required the same handling as an emergency here.

It’s vital to understand what flooding does to households and communities. You will see a lot of it before your first year in power is out. Many places are flooding over and over again, and it’s fundamentally affecting our resilience and our morale as a nation. Community resilience is about so much more than grab bags and three days’ worth of tinned food.

"Community resilience is about so much more than grab bags and three days’ worth of tinned food"

Don’t be tempted to start from scratch with your own “shit list” – something that Labour was said to have compiled last month. The work that the Cabinet Office does on the National Security Risk Assessment is a great place to start; it is a working document, constantly updated as new hazards and geopolitical situations emerge.

Take a brief break from campaigning to hone your crisis management skills. Leading in a crisis is different to leading, and requires a long, hard look at your own skills in advance of any activation. Listen to When the Dust Settles as an audible when you are travelling around the country and snag yourself David Omand’s How to Survive a Crisis. You must be able to forecast and imagine into the future and look well beyond the immediate picture.

Communications in a crisis have changed forever in a post-truth, post-trust era, as the world reels from a global pandemic. Keep comms in tragedy authentic and transparent. For example, don’t just pledge support for a charter for the bereaved – understand what engagement with it really means. After the emergence of Covid, the window for public trust is short and trust dwindles quickly. Candour is key; establishing credibility is critical. Responding to media and social media claims is an unwinnable dance. The response can’t fight negativity but must operate alongside it.

The most important thing to understand is that poverty, inadequate housing and poor health all intersect with a country’s ability to respond to any incident. Crises do not create new cracks; they shine an intense light on existing harms and vulnerabilities. Our leaders need to be ready to lantern-bear through anything that happens from day one, and to accept the good help that is all around them. 

Key disaster-preparedness points for new ministers and their advisers

  • Be wary of initiatives that might seem positive but could prove a hindrance. New ministers are notorious for endorsing “bad help” – things that can actually make a situation much worse, such as the donation of second-hand goods. 
  • Say yes to the training. As soon as reasonably possible, get yourself booked on to the courses with the Cabinet Office.
  • Get ready for another pandemic. It is extremely likely, and it poses a severe national and global risk. 
  • Understand the complexities of a mass-casualty, mass-fatality tragedy and particularly the science of Disaster Victim Identification – how we scientifically identify the deceased of a major incident.
  • Encourage others to raise concerns and anticipate cascading impacts/domino effects. It needs to be safe for civil servants to speak out.
  • Fund emergency planning at all levels of society.


Lucy Easthope is a leading authority on recovering from disaster. Her book When the Dust Settles is a Sunday Times bestseller. She is a professor in mass fatalities and pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

This article first appeared in the summer issue of Civil Service World. Read the digital magazine in full 

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