COVID-19 has put the way we think about responding to emergencies under a brighter spotlight than it has been for years.
The pandemic was – still is – a serious threat to lives and livelihoods, and our emergency structures and systems have been challenged and stretched. Those of us involved in organising and supporting the COVID response have learned so much about what works and what needs improving.
For people who rely on this support at times of crisis, it is critical we do not miss the opportunity to act on these lessons and work together to make the improvements necessary. Next month is critical for action.
As part of a five-yearly review, Government will decide at the end of March whether to update UK civil contingencies legislation.
This Civil Contingencies Act review – coupled with Government’s new and developing National Resilience Strategy – gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a whole-society approach to resilience and future risks, ensuring emergency systems and structures are aligned and responsive to people’s needs.
Since its inception, the UK’s Civil Contingencies infrastructure has undergone several reforms, often in response to major emergencies.
Two decades on from the events that gave us the Act, it is due another evolution.
Before the pandemic, our direct experience of, and learning, from the major UK emergencies in 2017 – Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester and London terror attacks of that year – highlighted how systems, structures, and legislation can underestimate what people need if they are to cope and, critically, recover from an emergency.
We should state clearly what people need in a crisis and make it a statutory requirement within the Civil Contingencies Act to meet people’s practical, emotional, and information needs consistently.
This would apply to all associated guidance – integrated into the national risk register – while the principle of a human-centred approach should be the backbone of our National Resilience Strategy.
We need change as, sadly, we have witnessed too many going without the assistance they have needed when crisis has struck – no food, cash, or shelter; no psychosocial or mental health support.
During Storm Arwen, emergency partners and the British Red Cross supported impacted communities, but we saw gaps with some unable to access food or hot showers.
Limited mobile charging points prevented people, in parts, from keeping in contact with loved ones and getting information on the power outage.
Over time, we saw needs change. As the emergency extended, the emotional impact hit home and many people experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation after being cut off for so long.
Unfortunately, we know, when it comes to the support available to help people in these circumstances, it is a postcode lottery where too many go unsupported.
That is why I believe more can be done to include the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in the planning for emergencies – and during responses – as organisations like the British Red Cross – and the many smaller locally-based charities and community groups across the UK – are well-placed and have the experience required to meet people’s needs.
That is why we created the VCS Emergency Partnership, made up of nearly 200 organisations, small and large, committed to learning and training together to improve emergency response in the future. We have already seen the benefits of this in supporting the recent arrivals of Afghan evacuees.
Now is the time to strengthen the duty on local resilience forums to collaborate with the voluntary and community sector, and to state clearly the capability of humanitarian auxiliaries – special providers of officially-recognised support to the public authorities in times of crisis, like the British Red Cross – in our national and regional emergency response architecture.
We have seen how a lack of community engagement, planning, collaboration, transparency, and accountability can make emergencies much worse than they need to be, especially for vulnerable communities.
COVID-19 is emphasising these inequalities and the value of the voluntary and community sector at the same time.
Our sector’s unique ability to tap into resources and assets in communities and reach groups that are off-grid has helped improve vaccination rollout and made food and medicine provision for those shielding quicker and easier.
As we have seen, the response to the pandemic has evolved and flexed as Government, the voluntary and community sector, businesses, and communities have innovated to meet changing needs and to identify and tackle hidden vulnerabilities.
Working relationships are stronger, the capacity and knowledge of voluntary and community groups better understood, and the value of building preparedness and resilience widely acknowledged.
We must sustain this momentum for change and improvement as we return to business as usual.Instead, we must act on what we’ve learnt so people are safer before, during, and after an emergency and the nation is more resilient to the increased number of shocks that are undoubtedly coming our way.
Mike Adamson is British Red Cross chief executive and co-chair of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCS)