National Risk Register: Striking a Balance Between Preparedness and Preparing a Response

Now at its third iteration, the UK's National Risk Register has been praised internationally for giving an official stock take of threats and hazards facing the country. However, a more proactive Register would help to enlarge the focus from emergency preparedness and response towards more prevention and vulnerability reduction.

The UK's National Risk Register (NRR), an unclassified and public version  of the threats and hazards the country faces, is rightly admired by the international community.  Virtually all of the threats (man-made attacks such as terrorism and cyber attack) and hazards it lists (natural events such as flooding, heatwaves and pandemic flu) , require more than just government action to address them. The private sector operators of electricity companies, water companies, transport utilities and the businesses on which any community depends need to plan for and mitigate risks, as do the emergency services and local governments.  In order to do so, they need to be fully aware of what those risks might be.

Similarly, the more the general public can do to make themselves and their homes resilient, the more resilient their communities and the UK as a whole, will become. Measures would include checking whether or not they live in an area at risk of flooding,  understanding simple cyber security practices such as using strong passwords and spotting obvious attempts at financial fraud, to taking advantage of seasonal flu vaccinations. The NRR allows all sectors of society - public sector, private sector, and the public themselves - to plan and prepare together.

Where the NRR works less well, however, is as an early warning system to drive emergency preparedness and planning well in advance. The National Risk Assessment (which considers risk on a five-year horizon), and National Security Risk Assessment (which looks further ahead, to twenty years out, and informs the NRA which, in turn, informs the NRR), would be more effective if they could move emerging risks onto the NRR more quickly, before their impact is felt rather than immediately afterwards. The last two iterations of the register have included four new categories. Three of these (two distinct types of volcanic volcano hazards - ash cloud and gas-rich effusion - plus social disruption and wildfires) have been added in retrospect. They were done only after serious disruption was caused by such events. Only the fourth category - severe space weather - has been added predictively.

Placing Risks on the Register

It is, of course, difficult if not impossible to foresee the genuinely unexpected - for example, the spread of effects following the severe volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 .- But it should be less difficult to predict certain consequences, such as severe air pollution or disruption to airline services leaving large numbers of UK citizens stranded overseas and in need of some Foreign and Commonwealth Office assistance. It was not so much the volcanic eruption itself that was the hazard to the UK, but the subsequent disruptive effects it caused. Air pollution was a serious issue during the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak at the turn of this century, due to the large numbers of carcasses burned on open pyres. Moreover, the problem posed by stranded travellers has been experienced more recently when severe ice and snow closed the Channel Tunnel in 2009.

We can equally question why it has taken so long for wildfires to appear on the register when their frequency and intensity has been steadily increasing over recent years as summers become hotter and drier across ever more northerly areas of Europe. They were particularly fierce in the UK in 2011 and 2012, but this should have been no more unexpected or difficult to predict on past experience than a flu pandemic.  Had they appeared on the NRR sooner, Local Authorities and Local Resilience Forums might have been more inclined to plan a collective response that encompassed the skills and assets of more than just the local Fire and Rescue Services. Many of these risks 'bubble under' on the reserve list of the NRSA and NRA before their actual occurrence promotes them, but many of the people who need to plan for them do not always see these longer, classified versions. It is important to consider how the NRR is used, and by whom, as well as what it represents.

Pandemic flu, for example, is a very specific risk to have on the register, which could easily be expanded to include 'serious infectious disease' in general. Such a move would enable most of the measures needed to mitigate an outbreak of any disease to be fully planned for, and would also go a long way to tackling antimicrobial resistance, which is currently going through the National Security Risk Assessment process for possible inclusion in its own right, to be considered immediately. To have one single infectious disease - influenza - alone at the top of the register, with all less serious diseases considered together in a separate but discrete grouping lower down makes less sense than a gradated scale.

With the above in mind, a particularly strange decision in this new iteration of the register is the one to combine zoonotic diseases (those that can transfer from animals to humans) with non-zoonotic animal diseases in a single 'animal disease' category. The response required for an animal health emergency, such as a Foot and Mouth outbreak or BSE, is considerably different to that required for H5N1, or 'Bird Flu' or, in fact for the H1N1 strain responsible for the recent 'Swine Flu' pandemic. The consequences of the former are largely to the safety of the food chain and impact on the agricultural industry, while the latter affects human health and the NHS. Regardless of their origins, the risks posed by zoonotic diseases correlate more with those from SARS and the current pathogen-du-jour, the coranovirus responsible for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Zoonotic diseases are more akin to a food chain supply disruption or environmental contamination.

The way in which the NRR silos threats and hazards does not make explicit the link between the increasing incidence of diseases such as Blue Tongue or West Nile Fever and climate change: they are being carried further north as warmer air currents, and more favourable conditions, allow the mosquitoes that carry them to penetrate Northern Europe and North America. In fact, the root cause - climate change -has brought wildfires onto the NRR. Again, while the Climate Change Risk Assessment feeds the NRA, this may not be explicit to the end users of the NRR.

A Holistic View of Resilience

Approaching the NRR in this way would help to address the concerns of the recent Peer Review Report of the United Kingdom 2013, Building resilience to disasters: Assessing the implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) that the UK needs to do more to prevent, as well as respond to, emerging risks. It could achieve this by making the links between these risks more explicit, which in turn would encourage responses that deal with both the causes and the symptoms and would help to build resilience from the bottom up as well as the top down by enabling emergency planners, responders and community members to take a more holistic view of resilience.

In truth, however, the above points are largely a nitpicking exercise, looking for holes in an approach the UK has pioneered and which it is largely better at than many other countries. The Civil Contingencies Act is less than a decade old, the NRR has been public for only half that, and it is only now that countries such as the US are following the UK's example. True resilience will take a while longer yet to bed down. The Hyogo Peer Review praises our ability to integrate science into policy and rightly commends initiatives such as the Natural Hazards Partnerships, the Local Resilience Forums structure and the willingness to give the public a stake in their own resilience.

The UK has come a long way since the 'Four Fs' challenges to resilience that took place at the turn of the century: flooding, Foot and Mouth, the Firefighters' strike and the fuel protests prompted an overhaul of the way we approach civil emergencies. There is still some way to go, but the direction is clear. Perhaps this is the time to step back from the NRR and look not only the isolated threats and hazards placed across it, but to take a more holistic view of what links them together, and what are the root causes of the vulnerabilities - to create a Venn diagram of the cause and effect of risks as well as just a graph of their relative likelihood and impact.

This might also encourage a more forward-looking approach at local as well as national level that assesses the temporal and geographic proximity of risks to the UK and would be more likely to place emerging risks on the NRR before their impact is felt. There may still be a volcano that catches us unawares, but the consequences should be foreseeable, if not the cause. As the Hyogo Peer Review has identified, our next priority should be prevention, strengthening the approach of the National Security Risk Assessment and the National Risk Assessment so that no event, no matter how unexpected, is likely to catch the UK completely unawares.


Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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