Margaret writes extensively on security & terrorism issues for agencies & the press. Find out more about some of her more recent writings here ...
Re-Balancing Security and Justice - The Reform of UK Counter-Terrorism Legislation by Alex Carlile, Michael Clarke, Tobias Feakin, Margaret Gilmore, Benedict Wilkinson
Keeping the UK Safe
A RUSI analysis of the effectiveness of Government Homeland Security Structures, by Margaret Gilmore
RUSI Journal Publications
RUSI Monitor Publications
What will the first National Risk Register reveal when it's published later this year?
As part of his National Security Strategy the Prime Minister has announced the Government will publish a National Risk Register, based on assessments that until now have been secret. Margaret Gilmore reveals what’s in it and how the risk levels are calculated.
At the moment it’s top secret. But later in the year much of the National Risk Register – the Government’s own take on the worst risks we face - will lose its “classified” status and for the first time be made public. It is a vast and complex piece of statistical analysis, designed to tell the planners which of the many nightmares we face today, they really need to prepare for.
Statisticians and analysts inside the Cabinet Office have worked out the likelihood of various events occurring and how big a challenge they pose. Their calculations rank events according to the number of people likely to die, the level of disruption to society and the economy, and the likely psychological effects. The risk is then placed in a graph which currently has four levels – Very High, High, Medium and low.
THE BIGGEST THREATS
So what will it show as the biggest threats facing the UK? On the current register there are three in the “Very High” tier. These are a flu pandemic, sea floods on the East Coast, and a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. In the coming years Climate Change, and the 2012 Olympics will push other risks up the Register.
Of the three currently rated the worst risk, the flu pandemic could be the most devastating. Those in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office who’ve drawn up the register calculate that if a new pandemic virus spread to the UK, it would take months to develop and produce a vaccine. During that time, their “reasonable worst case” scenario suggests 750,000 UK citizens could die – that’s around 1 per cent of the population or 1 in 100 people. It would become increasingly difficult to keep to keep society and the economy going, and to keep essential services like the NHS running as key workers became infected. The last time there was a global pandemic was in 1918 when upwards of 20 million people died worldwide from a highly virulent form of the ‘flu virus.
The threat of severe sea flooding, specifically to the East coast of England is also in the top level of the Register as a “Very High” risk. That’s because as sea levels rise and England slowly tilts, the coast between East Yorkshire and the East Coast of Kent is increasingly vulnerable. In the case of severe sea flooding it’s estimated 300,000 people could have to be evacuated. And remember how badly things went wrong in New Orleans. Early warning systems would reduce the trauma by getting everyone out of their homes in time. But if there wasn’t time to do that many would still be in their homes when the floods arrived – and that would bring life threatening consequences. As we saw in Gloucestershire last year, it would also pose problems with the delivery of essential services from fresh water to electricity. The last major floods on the East coast were in 1953, when 300 people died, but future floods could be far worse and more frequent.
After years of terrorism dominating the security agenda, last summer’s floods came as a wake up call to many in the corridors of Whitehall. The interim report on last summer’s floods by Sir Michael Pitt says the Government has good plans in place for coping with terrorist attacks but not for dealing with severe weather. It concludes:
“In contrast to the co-ordinated, systematic campaign led by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure to protect critical infrastructure against acts of terrorism….the approach taken to mitigating the risk from natural hazards has largely been uncoordinated and reactive”.
Those analysing risk have learned from last summer’s floods that it’s not necessarily the first event but subsequent events that can turn a crisis into a catastrophe.
The worst flooding in July 2007 was in Sheffield, followed by Doncaster and Hull where some 10,000 homes flooded. Yet what happened in Gloucestershire where fewer homes, (4,000), were damaged, proved more catastrophic.
That’s because the initial flooding was followed by a series of other emergencies. First, the M5 motorway flooded and 10,000 motorists became stranded. Then came river flooding into thousands of homes, followed by loss of drinking water to one third of a million people for seventeen days - the worst recorded loss of water ever. Finally the flood waters came within two inches of flooding an electricity sub-station which would have cut off supplies to 240,000 homes and businesses for a sustained period. Had that happened it would have been the biggest ever loss of electricity. Gloucestershire’s problems started as a flooding emergency but ended up as a water disaster.
Yet despite last summer’s events, the river flooding events do not reach the highest tier on the National Risk register. And although the risks of severe heat and severe storms will feature when it’s published, they are also likely to be categorised as “Medium” rather than “High” or “Very High Risk”.
All these weather-related risks could climb higher on the Register as the effects of Climate Change take hold. A link to climate change was not proven in last summer’s floods, but they were regarded by Sir Michael Pitt as a sign of the severe weather he now regards as “inevitable” as a result of Climate Change. He reports:
“The Summer 2007 floods can’t be attributed directly to climate change, but they do provide a clear indication of the scale and nature of the severe weather events we may expect as a result.” The Government accepts scientific predictions that we can’t change what will happen over the next thirty years although climate change could be reversed across a century – if we radically change our lifestyles.
As climate change goes up the agenda the Register will show that terrorist attacks do not. At present the terrorist threat is spread across the risk levels. It’s estimated that a conventional terrorist attack such as those on July 7th in London could kill several hundred people, so it’s placed on a lower threat level than a pandemic, as fewer lives are likely to be lost, and the wider impact across the whole UK would be less.
But a 9/11 style attack – with aircraft flying into high rise office blocks, like those which caused 3,000 deaths in New York - is up in the VERY High risk category alongside the pandemic. That’s not just because of the high number of possible deaths but because of the effect on the City – the engine room of the British economy.
It may come as a surprise that nuclear installations are not regarded as a high – that’s because of the strict safely regimes they have. But creeping up the Risk Register is the threat of cyber attack. Terrorists may try to use the internet to undermine energy supplies for example. But others are also exploiting the worldwide web. Jonathan Evans, Director-General of MI5 recently voiced his disappointment at having to spend so much time and money dealing with cyber spies from Russia, China and elsewhere. He says:
“A number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense. They….increasingly deploy sophisticated technical attacks using the internet to penetrate computer networks”. Last year Estonia had to shut down key political, media and business website after concerted cyber attacks from outside the country.
THE OLYMPIC RISK
Risks to the UK will inevitably change, as Bruce Mann, who is Director of Civil Contingencies in the Cabinet Office, points out:
“The levels of risks will change from year to year, not least because of the impact of climate change. And we will need to take account of new factors like the Olympics.”
He explains that an attack on a tube will have a higher impact during the Olympic Games. It will affect more people, there’ll be more chaos on stretched transport systems, and there’s the potential for psychological damage on a bigger scale. All this could push the event into a higher risk zone – and as a result should trigger more planning to prevent it, and to deal with the consequences if it does happen.
Civil servants must now turn their classified work on risks into an unclassified register by the autumn. They need to balance the political desire for a deeper, accurate public understanding of risk, against the need to keep intelligence on risks secure. There’s no doubt we will all gain better insight into threats faced by the UK. But the National Risk Register won’t contain everything.
“We’ve got to check the material we have,” says Bruce Mann, “we don’t want to publish anything that gives insight to potential terrorists on what we know – if we give too much away they could determine how good our intelligence coverage is”.
He also points out the limitations of relying only on statistical analysis in debates about what are the most significant risks to society:
“A single terrorist event might or might not be as bad as a single severe weather event. But with terrorism we are engaged in the response to a threat which is serious and sustained, and where the response will require a concerted, generational campaign”.
When he announced his first National Security Strategy this week, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that of all the security challenges to the UK, “the most serious and urgent remains the threat from international terrorism.” The National Risk Register will paint a different, broader, picture, where planning will have to be flexible to deal with a variety of different emergencies. Severe weather conditions and the risk of pandemic will be at the very least equally important.
There’s little doubt 9/11, and on a different level the scale of last summer’s floods, caught many in Government by surprise. The new National Risk Register will give new ammunition to the public to ratchet up pressure on the Government and others involved in our security, to be better prepared for all eventualities.